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While every construction project poses its own set of challenges and hazards, electrical work can be particularly risky. Not only does electrical power require its own training, certification and safety protocols, the consequences of an electrical injury can be very serious and sometimes deadly. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, in 2018 nearly one in 10 workplace electrical injuries were fatal, and more than half of these occurred in the construction industry.

Furthermore, the risks and responsibilities of electricity are not reserved only for the electricians, engineers and other professionals who work directly with it. Electrical hazards can often put other workers at risk, and because these workers may be less informed about electrical hazards and safety, they can be even more vulnerable to severe injuries.

With these unique risks in mind, every construction professional must understand the fundamentals of electrical safety, best practices for preventing injury and necessary steps should an accident occur. Whether or not someone is working directly with electricity, electrical safety is a collective responsibility. 

Identifying common electrical risks

Electrical injuries generally fall into three categories, with a spectrum of severity depending on exposure and voltage level. It is important to note that nonresidential power is often higher voltage and therefore poses a greater risk of injury.

1. Electric shock injuries. Electric shock injuries occur when electric current passes through the body. The individual will receive a shock, which can result in tingling sensations, muscle and nerve damage, and even cardiac arrest. The severity of an electric shock depends on the type, intensity and path of the current, the amount of protection between the current and the skin, and the amount of exposure time. 

2. Electric burn injuries. Electric burns occur on contact with voltage, as well as through electric flashes and flames. Whereas flash burns and flame burns are superficial, and not caused by a current passing through the body, voltage burns occur via direct contact with an electric current. Low voltage burns (500 volts or less) generally occur only at the point of contact - high voltage burns can cause severe damage underneath the skin and throughout the body.

3. Electrocution. Electrocution describes a fatal electrical injury. Electrocution is one of the Occupational Health & Safety Administration's "Fatal Four." It is a common fatal workplace injury, and those working in an occupation that deals directly with electricity, such as construction and electrical work, are particularly at risk. 

Electrical hazards can also cause secondary injuries. For example, an electric shock might cause a worker to fall or drop a heavy tool, or an electrical hazard might spark a fire, incurring further injury. Given the current pandemic, electrical sites can also become virus transmission points. Though this type of hazard does not directly involve electricity, electrical sites are just as likely as most workplaces to facilitate the transmission of COVID-19 if an infected individual has come in contact with the virus.

Tactics to ensure safety and avoid injury

1. Create the right conditions for electrical safety. Some of the most crucial steps in fostering electrical safety in the workplace must be taken before work even begins. Employers have an obligation to ensure that the worksite complies with all local, state and federal regulations concerning potential electrical hazards, as well as all codes for general worker safety. OSHA provides specific standards for electrical work, including lockout/tagout procedures, that must be followed and enforced diligently.

Part and parcel with these safety standards, before any electrical work can begin, employers have a responsibility to provide appropriate training and personal protective gear to workers. Employers must also walk their sites to identify potential electrical hazards and determine voltage levels. This information, along with the location of all electric power circuits, lines and hazards, must be communicated to workers. To protect employees from the risks of open switches and circuit-interrupting devices, employers should proactively guard them, and ensure that a circuit is tested before workers physically touch it.

Finally, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that workers are knowledgeable of emergency protocols and procedures should an electrical accident or injury occur. 

2. Choose the right workers for the job. Even with extensive safety measures taken by employers, electrical work is highly specialized and should only be done by qualified electricians and other experienced trade professionals. For other projects and tasks that involve electricity, workers must be familiar with and trained to manage electrical hazards. 

3. Use the right tools for the job. “The right tools for the right job” is construction safety 101. However, with electrical work it bears repeating. Always use the proper tools, fuses, cords and other equipment that is appropriate for the circumstances. All equipment and appliances must be regularly inspected to make sure they are not damaged or hazardous.

4. Be aware of surroundings. Electrical work is only as safe as the environment around it. Always look up to identify potential electrical hazards overhead, such as power lines. Likewise, before digging or excavating, know what electrical hazards lie below. With a few business days’ notice, workers can call 811 or use their state's 811 center website to verify the presence of utility lines below. 

Steps to take if an accident occurs

Unfortunately, even with the greatest precautions, accidents can still occur. If a worker sustains an electrical injury on the job, the most important step is to immediately seek medical attention. Remain calm and dial 911 or solicit help from bystanders to make the call. Because of the internal damage that electrical exposure can cause, the injured worker may be in shock and unable to fully realize or communicate the extent of their injuries. Therefore, it is vital that the individual receive thorough medical evaluation and treatment. 

After attending to injuries, injured workers should document the case and file an accident report. Generally, workers cannot sue their employers for injuries sustained on-the-job. Instead, they have the option of filing a claim under the state’s workers' compensation law to cover their related loss of earnings, up to certain limits, as well as medical expenses. Negligence is not a determining factor in workers' compensation claims, so regardless of whether the worker or employer was at fault for the injury, they are still eligible for benefits. 

For workers who suffer an electrical injury or family members who lose a loved one in an electrical accident due to third party negligence, a personal injury lawsuit could be an option. Personal injury claims can be made for negligence and statutory violations against a person or company other than the injured person's employer. 

Successful personal injury lawsuits cover injury related losses and can include lost income, future wages, medical expenses or diminished earning potential as well as lost quality of life physical pain and suffering, mental anguish and other emotional consequences. Victims looking to pursue legal recourse for damages they have suffered due to negligence should consult the guidance of an experienced personal injury lawyer who can guide them through the process. 

Electrical injuries, like many others in construction, can have broad and enduring consequences on workers and their families. Because electrical work presents its own unique and dangerous hazards and requires specific tools and training, it is the collective responsibility of employers, workers and all third parties to ensure that they create the safest conditions possible. In the end, legal action may be appropriate to help the worker or family recover lost expenses. However, the best-case scenario is one where every worker clocks out safe and sound. 


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