Risk Control Hierarchy Clarifies Electrical Safety

Oct. 1, 2009
A clear and realistic set of objectives goes a long way in driving continuous improvements in electrical safety. Resources can be allocated and priorities can be defined once objectives are set.

The risk control hierarchy (RCH) in the ANSI-Z10 standard provides electrical safety professionals with an excellent roadmap for setting the rig ht safety objectives that result in the reduction of electrical risks. For example, when a Department of Energy electrical safety program is analyzed under the light of the RCH, many potential electrical safety improvements begin to jump off the page. The RCH not only helps improve a plant electrical safety program, but it also inspires manufacturers to improve their electrical equipment designs. Lastly, the RCH provides a means to measure the effectiveness of an electrical safety initiative, much the same way a project manager uses financial measurements (return on investment or payback analysis) to evaluate a project.

Building a successful electrical safety culture will reduce the number of workplace fatalities and electrical accidents. However, accomplishing that task does not happen overnight. It takes time, effort and persistence to ripen the attitudes, beliefs and values necessary to harvest a culture of electrical safety.

Still, very little can happen until safety priorities are set and budgets are approved. This understanding begs the question: How do we identify electrical safety priorities and strategically allocate budgets to fund them? Moreover, how can we measure our success? The answer is with the risk control hierarchy1 (RCH).


Focusing on electrical safety though the lens of the RCH provides new perspectives and practical applications needed to make necessary determinations that will increase electrical safety. We will improve the status quo by finding and implementing a superior way to reduce electrical risks.

Consider the introduction of car air bags in vehicles: Airbags ushered in a superior way of reducing the risk of head injuries during automobile accidents. Yet, had the visionaries who brought us the airbag only focused on improving seatbelts, we never would have achieved the level of safety we have today. Instead, they came up with an innovative idea that required new technology to take us beyond new and improved seatbelts. The result was a huge reduction in head injuries during automobile accidents. Ironically, the effectiveness of the airbag depends upon the proper use of a seatbelt! It is important to remember that less risk equals more safety.

Safety professionals have proven the effectiveness of the RCH as an instrument for identifying, understanding, measuring and reducing the risks within a facility through ANZI-10. The same concept will prove equally effective when applied to electrical safety. For example, once the riskiest electrical areas of a plant are identified, the RCH will help set the right priorities, find the best solutions and measure the overall effectiveness of the safety program. Let's see how we can incorporate traditional electrical safety with RCH principles to further reduce electrical risks.

Electrical safety focuses on the prevention of shocks and burns. Electrical explosions — or arc flash — likely will cause burns, while simple contact with live voltage results in a shock. The physical and financial severity of the incidents can be diminished because of the tools we use. For example, an arc flash with injury can cost $8 million to $10 million. One extreme case cost the insurance company $29 million. The employer's workers' compensation rate went through the roof: from $250,000 to $5 million for 5 years.2

The severity of an accidental shock is unpredictable due to certain variables such as current path, voltage levels and grounding practices. Let's see how the RCH principles can be applied to reduce both arc flash and shock risks.

Keeping in mind that less risk equals more safety, setting the right order of priorities pays the biggest safety dividend because the riskiest areas get the most attention first. Understanding how to set priorities for electrical safety poses a challenge for the non-electrical safety manager. For all he knows, electricity is a mysterious bunch of invisible electrons moving instantaneously through copper wires that may zap you at any time! The shrouded mystery of electricity compels many safety managers to depend upon the plant electrical maintenance or engineering departments to manage the electrical safety program. The RCH helps to bridge the gap between these departments.


So how do we use the RCH to measure and reduce electrical risks? In most cases, any risk area in a facility has already employed a risk reduction measure that falls somewhere into the RCH. When applied to electrical safety, this hierarchy provides the most effective to the least effective way to reduce electrical hazards:

  1. Elimination — Removing any exposure to voltage.

  2. Substitution — Replacing higher risks with lower risks.

  3. Engineering Controls — Reinventing ways to control electrical energy.


    Awareness — Revealing all sources of electrical energy.

  5. Administrative Controls — Regulations that teach personnel how to be safe around electrical energy (NFPA 70E).

  6. Personal Protection — Reducing risks of working on live voltage.

Each step of the RCH has equal importance to overall safety, with risk reduction varying between the steps. For example, the top three steps are designed to control the risk before it gets in close proximity to the employee. The last three steps assume that the employee already is exposed to the electrical energy and needs to be kept safe while he is close to the hazard.

NFPA 70E — along with its PPE requirements — have been highly effective at increasing electrical safety. However, it is the least effective means of improving electrical safety. This is an important distinction that should not be glossed over. In other words, once you have done everything possible to reduce the risk to its lowest level, then you must focus on protecting the worker from the residual risk. Protecting workers from residual risks is a big emphasis of NFPA 70E. The most comprehensive long-term electrical safety solutions will be found at the top steps of the RCH.

Voltage is the common denominator in electrical safety. If voltage is present, then electrical incidents can happen. Electrical incidents only happen if voltage is present. Therefore, creating a barrier that keeps maintenance workers away from voltage, or an arc flash explosion, is a sure way to increase electrical safety.


Let's apply the RCH to the Department of Energy (DOE). In 2005, the DOE had an average per month of 14.1 electrical-related shocks, burns and the like. Electrical safety — those procedures and practices meant to prevent injury and damage — also had the highest percentage of near misses of any other recordable safety events in DOE.3 If we keep in mind that reducing risk increases safety, this means that electrical safety, as it was being applied, didn't succeed in its intent. DOE cited the following primary causes for these incidents:

  • Lack of hazard identification
  • Lack of training
  • Lockout/tagout (LO/TO) violations (shortcuts or lack of energy verification)
  • Failure to stop work to perform safe energy checks
  • 33+ Electrical Shocks in 2005 (Increasing yearly)
  • Poor planning

Do we increase electrical safety at DOE by more training, better LO/TO rules or better hazard identification? Absolutely! Can we be exponentially better by using the RCH to uncover even newer and better ways to reduce risk? Absolutely!

The RCH opens our eyes to see newer and better ways to reduce risks so we don't settle for minor improvements that may have little effect on risk reduction. In other words, an airbag is better than an improved seatbelt for reducing head injuries.

Most of the causes listed above take root in the administrative level of the RCH. Now our questions become: How can we eliminate the hazards? Can we find ways to substitute or engineer to reduce hazards? How do we make personnel more aware of the hazard? So let's ask some hard questions and increase electrical safety by moving up the RCH.

Today's competitive business environment demands we invest our safety resources in areas that will reduce risks and increase safety. Financial measurements like cash flow, ROI and ROA are the tools used to prioritize and quantify other budgets within an enterprise. The RCH principles discussed here can be applied to electrical safety to identify the goals and measure the effectiveness of electrical safety expenditures and the overall success of electrical safety.

Fierce competition for capital dictates that projects with the best return on investment become top priorities. Therefore, if electrical safety projects are budgeted and evaluated in the same way based upon the RCH, then we would be able to prioritize specific objectives and see higher safety and productivity dividends. Furthermore, as we apply the RCH to more and more electrical safety risks, it will open our eyes to see more practical ways to reduce those risks. Most importantly, the RCH will help us find new “air bags” for electrical safety!

Phil Allen is president of Grace Engineered Products Inc.


1. ANSI-Z10 Appendix G

2. Plant Services

3. Department of Energy 2005 Electrical Safety Meeting, Las Vegas, National Electrical Safety Incidents and Trends, Nov. 29, 2005

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