Occupational Electrical Injury and Fatality Trends: 1992-2007

As we focus on National Electrical Safety Month, it is important that we pause for a moment not only to recognize how far we have come in saving lives through safer work practices and enhanced equipment, but also to remember there is still much we can do

Next year, we will commemorate the 40th anniversary of OSHA. Since its inception, overall workplace fatalities have been cut by more than 60 percent and occupational injury and illness rates have declined by 40 percent. All of this occurred during an era of unprecedented growth in the United States where the total number of workers more than doubled in size. However, thousands of work-related fatalities and life altering injuries still occur each year in spite of these dramatic advancements in health and safety.

This past year, the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) began an extensive review of data on electrical injuries and fatalities. At the conclusion of this review, the foundation determined that more information needed to be made available to the industry so that important injury trends could be detected and responded to in as timely a manner as possible.

Through this process, we were reintroduced to a study that had examined electrical injuries and fatalities using Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 1992-2002 that had been collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Building off this study, ESFI has extended the prior data to include information about U.S. workplace electrical injuries that occurred between 2003 and 2007. An analysis of this data revealed injury trends within select industries, revealed statistics about common work-related injuries, and allowed for calculation of both fatal and nonfatal electrical injury rates. In addition, the nonfatal electrical shock and burn injury experience of select industries also were examined.

Though the results of our assessment were in many ways encouraging, they also revealed critical signs of warning that merit the attention of stakeholders across all industry sectors. The good news is that by focusing on the industry-wide trends in electrically related fatalities and injuries, we are able to confirm that efforts to create a culture of safety are in fact beginning to have an impact. The numbers alone indicate that we are experiencing substantially fewer deaths and injuries than we were 15 years ago.

In 1994, which serves as the 15-year high watermark, there were 348 electrically related fatalities and 6,018 injuries. In contrast, in 2007 there were a total of 212 electrically related fatalities and 2,540 injuries reported. This decrease is eye opening and it becomes even more dramatic when we consider the human context. At a minimum, this data offers a sound reminder that development and adherence to safety standards and programs can and does make a significant difference. However, it also is important to note that in spite of this overall decline, fatality rates in certain industries have remained static, or have in some cases increased, during the last 5 years.

ACCIDENT DATA SOURCE

In order to accurately determine the number of electrically related fatalities and injuries that occur each year in the United States, ESFI utilized information from a comprehensive occupational injury survey conducted by BLS. For fatal accidents, BLS performs an actual count of workplace deaths and verifies the cause of each fatality using death certificates, newspaper articles, police reports, etc. Fatal accident statistics include all workers over 16 years of age. Counting the number of nonfatal accidents becomes somewhat more complicated, and BLS statistically estimates the number of these accidents using a survey of approximately 230,000 employers each year. (Estimates of nonfatal injuries exclude certain groups; for example, farm workers on farms employing fewer than 11 workers and the self-employed. For detailed information on the data, go to the BLS Web site at http://www.bls.gov/iif/#data.)

ELECTRICAL ACCIDENT SUMMARY

From 2003 to 2007, ESFI found that 28,401 workers died on the job. The most common accident types were transportation accidents (10,363 cases), followed by assaults and violent acts (4,130) and falls (3,950). In contrast, worker contact with electric current in some shape or form was responsible for 1,213 fatal workplace accidents during this period. Additionally, 13,150 workers were so severely injured from these electrical contacts that their injuries required time off from work.

Worker contact with overhead power lines was by far the leading cause of on-the-job electrical deaths. In fact, 43 percent of all occupational electrical fatalities during this 5-year period can be attributed to contact with overhead power lines. However, worker contact with overhead power lines was involved in only 2 percent of nonfatal electrical accidents. This finding emphasizes the need to train employees to be aware of power lines in their work vicinity as accidents involving power lines are far more likely to kill rather than injure the worker.

The second leading category of electrical fatality involves workers coming in contact with wiring, transformers or other electrical components. This type of accident seems to occur more often to an employee whose job routinely involves working with electrical components, such as an electrician or contractor. This category accounted for 28 percent of electrical fatalities and 37 percent of nonfatal electrical accidents.

The third leading category of electrical fatalities involves workers coming in contact with electric current from machines, tools, appliances or light fixtures. This type of accident occurs more often to workers whose job duties included mechanical and electrical maintenance. For example, accidental electrocution due to contact with tools and apparatus whose grounding conductors were faulty or missing would be included in this category. This accident type accounted for 18 percent of all electrical fatalities and 35 percent of nonfatal workplace electrical accidents from 2003 to 2007.

One popular misconception involves the number of electrical fatalities caused by worker contact with underground power lines. Our examination of the data found only five such fatalities over the 5-year period of 2003-2007. In contrast, 45 workers were struck and killed by lightning during that time. An additional 27 workers died in electrical accidents whose exact circumstances could not be identified.

ELECTRICAL INJURY RATES

The utility industry had the highest rate of electrical fatalities in 2004 (1.6 fatalities per 100,000 workers), 2006 (1.8) and 2007 (1.4). (Rates of fatal injury are reported per 100,000 workers and nonfatal injuries are reported per 10,000 workers.) (See Fig. 1.)

There were approximately 560,000 workers employed in all sectors (electric, gas, water and sewer) of the utility industry in 2007. Not surprisingly, most of the electrical injuries in all sectors of the utility industry occurred in the electrical utility industry. Fifty-nine utility workers died in electrical accidents between 2003 and 2007.

Nonfatal electrical injury rates in the utility industry rose steadily from 2003 (1.3 per 10,000 workers) to a peak in 2006 (3.0) and returned to 1.7 in 2007. (See Fig. 2) The rise in injury rates in the utility industry was driven mainly by an increased number of electrical burns (this category includes all types of electrical burns, including arc flash burns, conduction burns, etc.). The utility industry reported 120 nonfatal injuries from electric shock and 450 from electrical burns.

In 2007, the construction industry was comprised of approximately 9.5 million workers. Historically, this industry has had the greatest number of electrical fatalities. This trend continued between 2003 and 2007, with 52 percent of occupational electrical fatalities occurring in the construction industry. Electricians sustained 47 percent of these electrical fatalities, followed by construction laborers (23 percent) and painters, roofers and carpenters with 6 percent in each occupation. Over the last 5 years, construction industry rates have shown steady improvement from a high in 2003 (1.4) to its 2007 rate of 0.9 fatalities per 100,000 workers.

However, it is important to remember that across that same period, the rate of electrical fatalities for all of private industry remained constant at 0.2.

SAVING LIVES

Overall, the study results were promising. Compared to 15 years ago, we are saving more lives and far fewer individuals must cope with the life-altering trauma that can accompany an electrical injury. However, we can and must do better.

In 2007, more than 2,700 workers and their families were tremendously impacted because of electrical accidents on the job. We strongly believe that zero is the only acceptable number of fatalities and injuries in the workplace.

To this end, ESFI launched the Never Assume Electrical Safety Series, the foundation's newest and most advanced resource in addressing workplace safety. Developed by a panel of safety experts, the series is a collection of comprehensive video modules and related materials geared toward electrically qualified individuals working in industrial and construction environments. It is just one of the foundation's many steps in working toward the goal of zero electrical fatalities.

As we commemorate National Electrical Safety Month, we hope that you will re-examine your workplace and take the steps necessary to make 2009 the most electrically safe year we have experienced.


Brett Brenner is president and Jim Cawley, P.E. is a board member of the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), a nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to promoting electrical safety at work and in the home. Established in 1994, ESFI sponsors National Electrical Safety Month each May and is the leading authority on and advocate for electrical safety. To learn more about ESFI and electrical safety, visit http://www.electrical-safety.org, e-mail [email protected] or phone 703-841-3291.

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