In 1999, electrical accidents within the construction industry caused upwards of 176,800 worker deaths nationwide. By 2010, the last year for which we have confirmed data, fatalities had dropped to 83,200. That’s an impressive decrease, more than 50%, but it’s still too many accidents.
In fact, the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) reports that more than half of all electricity-related workplace deaths occur on construction sites. Construction also holds the distinction of accounting for more nonfatal shocks than any other industry.
Reducing Electrical Hazards On The Job Site
Obviously, electricity is essential to modern life. We all work with it indirectly; in most cases, it makes the work we do possible in the first place.
But some of us, electricians, engineers and power line workers for a start, stay close to the source. Because electricity is fundamental to almost every aspect of our lives, we tend to think of it as a benign, helpful force.
But electricity is extremely dangerous, as the statistics above clearly show. If you work with electricity directly, it’s crucial to respect the current.
Common Causes Of Electrical Injury
The first step in reducing your chances of suffering a shock (or worse) is to define the danger.
The ESFI pored over years of information collected by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics to find out which kinds of electrical accidents were most likely to cause fatal workplace injuries. Here’s what they discovered:
- 44% of deaths ⇒ Contact with overhead power lines
- 27% of deaths ⇒ Contact with wiring or transformers
- 17% of deaths ⇒ Contact with electric current of machine, tool or light fixture
- 1% of deaths ⇒ Contact with underground, buried power lines
This might seem obvious, but if you work with power lines, you’ll have to use extra precautions to keep yourself safe. Later in this article, we’ll provide some tips to help you work safely.
But any electrified surface can cause a shock. To explain how and why, we’ll have to cover some science.
What Is An Electric Shock?
Electricity is a form of energy that begins on the atomic level. Every atom has a core: a central particle called its “nucleus.” Smaller particles, protons and electrons, swirl around this core.
These particles are more or less “loosely” connected to the nucleus, and different atoms can actually “trade” them between one another. This trade is the essence of an electrical current: electrons are passed down a line of atoms, like water in a bucket brigade.
Generally, electrical current flows in one direction, from a beginning (“source”) to an end (“return”). But sometimes the source and return are the same point – this is a circuit. It’s like a loop: there has to be a clear path from one end to the other, and then the flow repeats.
An electric shock is what happens if the human body comes in the path of an electrical current and becomes part of a circuit. Electricity flows through different parts of the body, or from the body into the ground.
What Happens If I Get Shocked?
Depending on how much current flows through your body and where it goes once it’s “inside,” the effects can range from feeling nothing more than a light tingle to cardiac arrest and severe burns.
Burns are by far the most common electricity-related injury. How do they work?
When electricity flows through your body, it heats tissues and bones. Enough heat and those tissues can become severely damaged. The visible part of a burn, on the surface, is the effect of electricity killing off skin cells.
With enough electrical current, your muscles can start pumping, or “contracting,” at an extreme rate. This can look like someone is having a spasm. The main problem with this is that the spasming muscles can disrupt other functions in your body, most importantly the beating of your heart. Even if cardiac rest doesn’t occur, your nerves can become damaged after firing too much for too long.
Electrocution simply refers to death by electric shock.
Stopping Current In Its Tracks
Now that we’ve defined the problem, it’s time to turn to solutions.
According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), most shocks are the result of one of these problems:
- unsafe equipment or installation
- unsafe environment
- unsafe work practices
Here are four ways to protect your workplace from electrical hazards:
Electricity flows better through certain materials. Most metals, including copper, gold and aluminum are good “conductors”; they let electrical current pass through easily. Other materials impede the flow, things like glass, rubber and plastic.
Most wires that carry electricity are wrapped in insulation, rubber or plastic casing that won’t let current through. Before using any electrical equipment, check this layer of insulation for holes or tears.
The earth’s surface is a really good conductor. “Grounding” involves creating a path from an electrical source or tool to ensure that electrical current doesn’t “build up” in the device and cause an accident. Essentially, you’re giving the electricity a place to go, rather than your own body.
In most cases, outlets and electrical boxes won’t actually be routed to the ground, but to another good conductor of substantial size. This creates an alternate path to receive an excess of charge.
3. Circuit Protection
Fuses and circuit breakers are types of “circuit protection system.” They automatically stop an electrical current when something goes wrong.
4. Work Practices
How you treat electricity makes a huge difference.
Always handle electric tools with care. Most importantly, unplug anything before you start repairing it. Keep your equipment well-maintained to prevent them from becoming hazardous.
Working Near Or On Power Lines
The first rule around power lines? Keep your distance.
OSHA recommends that any worker unqualified to work with electricity should remain at least 10 feet from overhead power lines at all times.
If you must work on lines, make sure that any equipment, including cranes, that could become energized in the event of a mishap, is properly grounded. When your nearby, don’t touch any machinery that could become charged.
This guide was prepared by the experienced construction lawyers at Banville Law.