Electricity provides us with lights and power, on the job and at home. It's such a normal part of our lives that we often forget that power can be dangerous, too.
We've all experienced minor electric shocks, but shocks can be severe enough to kill. Careless use of electricity causes 10% of job-related deaths, as well as many serious injuries.
OSHA has some very detailed regulations designed to keep electricity from becoming a dangerous hazard. Control panels or switch boxes that could produce sparks have to be enclosed. You have to keep electrical equipment of 50 volts or more either in sepa rate rooms or enclosures, behind partitions, or at least eight feet above the ground. Electrical equipment over 600 volts has to be locked or guarded within an 8-foot-high fence or similar enclosure. Nothing but electrical equipment can be kept in these areas so that contact with anything flammable is prevented.
The built-in protections in electrical systems include fuses or circuit breakers that shut off power when they get more of a load than they can handle. Ground-fault circuit interrupters provide added protection outdoors, or in wet areas like bathrooms, b y cutting off power if there's any electrical leakage that could cause shocks.
One of OSHA electrical regulations is specifically aimed at reducing electrically caused accidents and injuries. The detailed Electrical Safety-Related Work Practices Standards (1910.331-360) limits certain tasks to "qualified" employees, who a re defined as having "training in avoiding the electrical hazards of working on or near exposed energized parts."
The standard defines all other employees as "unqualified" meaning they have no special training in recognizing and avoiding electrical hazards but might be exposed to electrical shock in the job.
A key reason for all these protections is to prevent a major electrical hazard shock. That's what happens when electric current goes through you because a wire isn't properly enclosed, or has defective insulation, or because you make direct contact with "live" electricity like a power line. The risk grows with length of contact with electric current, especially if the current enters your body near you heart. The ultimate electric shock is electrocution, and it doesn't take much electrical pow er to kill you.
Instant death is not electrical shock's only hazard. It can cause pain, loss of muscle control and coordination, internal bleeding, damage to nerves, muscles, or tissues, and cardiac arrest.
Another hazard is electric burns. If you touch overheated equipment, or if current flows through your body, you can end up with serious burns of skin and internal tissues.
If you overload circuits or equipment, you could encounter still another electrical hazard: overheating that causes a fire or explosion. This is especially dangerous in areas that contain flammable or explosive material.
To use electricity safely, you have to be able to identify its most common hazards. Most occur in everyday work situation, rather than the specific electrical tasks covered by the OSHA standard. Electrical repair should be left to skilled, trained peopl e. So if you spot one of these hazards, don't touch anything. Report it to your supervisor immediately so repairs can be made.
Here are the hazards to watch for: