By Melanie Mesaros
In 2007, a teen working at a Portland pizza chain walked into a cooler to get dough and found the trays were stacked near the overhead fluorescent light fixture. The tray he reached for hit the light tube, dislodging it, and the employee then went to replace the bulb. The worker had one side in the fixture and his fingers on the prongs, attempting to guide the bulb in the other end, when he received an electrical shock. It was severe enough to result in an overnight hospitalization.
Employers may overlook electrical hazards like this because they assume simple tasks don't pose a risk. Its force is unheard and unseen.
"Whether it's changing out a light bulb or working on complex electrical systems, you need to recognize what electricity does and why it does it." ~ Ron Haverkost
"It doesn't mean you have to have a license to change a light bulb, but you really need to know what you're doing when it comes to electricity," said Ron Haverkost, Oregon OSHA's Salem enforcement manager. "It's the reason Oregon OSHA puts such an emphasis on training individuals to know what's expected of them. It doesn't take a lot of voltage to penetrate human skin."
Over the past three years, Oregon OSHA cited about 1,800 electrical violations. The most common include violations for missing cover plates, unused openings, and missing ground prongs.
Unlike a fall from a roof, which is an obvious hazard for construction crews, Roger Dale-Moore, safety manager at general contractor S.D. Deacon, said missing cover plates are a constant concern, too.
"Different tradespeople will take the cover plates off electrical boxes and switches to do finish work," Dale-Moore said. "The probability you could say, in some cases, is low for exposure but the severity is high because it's electrical. We now use a temporary plate that allows the work to continue."
Complacency about the power of electricity can even be an issue for licensed electricians. In 2013, Oregon OSHA investigated an accident in which a long-time utility employee was severely burned following an arc flash incident. The worker was installing a meter that was fully energized and he had removed his face shield.
"The past culture of the electrical trade and those folks who have been doing it for 20-plus years has left many to believe they're invincible," said Haverkost. "They already know they are going to get shocked and they live with that attitude. The culture shift has been slow in coming for people who have been doing it for a while."
However, new electricians are now receiving more safety-related training in their trade. The National Fire Protection Association 70E is a standard specific to electrical safety on the job and is a key part of training received by apprentices and journeymen.
"They are better informed on the hazards that exist today," said Haverkost.
Electricity, present on every jobsite, makes all employees vulnerable.
"Whether it's changing out a light bulb or working on complex electrical systems, you need to recognize what electricity does and why it does it," said Haverkost. "Regular training is critical when it comes to preventing incidents." ▉
Oregon OSHA's top electrical standards
1926.404(8)(6) *Construction standard
The following trades are most at risk of an electrical incident
Source: Central Services Division, Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services
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