Electricity is considered to be the "silent killer" in most workplaces because it is essentially invisible. Electricity cannot be heard, seen, smelled or tasted. As a result, most workers are unaware of their potential exposure to electrical hazards that may be present in their work environment, which, in turn, leaves them vulnerable to electrical injuries. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, electrical hazards cause more than 300 deaths and over 4,000 injuries in the workplace each year. Consequently, electricity ranks sixth among all causes of work-related deaths in the United States, rendering it one of the most serious workplace hazards.

What is Electricity?

The U.S. Department of Energy defines electricity as the flow of electrical power or charge. It is both a basic part of nature and one of the most widely used forms of energy. Electricity has become such a familiar part of our daily lives that practically all members of the workforce are exposed to electricity during the performance of their daily job tasks. However, many tend to overlook the hazards posed by electricity and, thus, fail to treat electricity with the respect it deserves.

Static Electricity vs. Dynamic Electricity

Electricity can be either "static" or "dynamic." This article focuses on the latter. Static electricity is the accumulation of charge on surfaces as a result of contact and friction with another surface. This contact/friction causes an accumulation of electrons on one surface, and a deficiency of electrons on the other surface.

Dynamic electricity is the uniform motion of electrons through a conductor. This is known as an electric current. A conductor is a material that allows electricity to flow freely through it. Most metals are conductors. The human body is also a conductor. It is important to note that an electric current cannot exist without an unbroken path to and from the conductor. This path that is created, through which the electric current flows, is called an electrical circuit.

Common Electrical Hazards in the Workplace

Electricity has long been recognized as a serious workplace hazard, exposing workers to a wide range of occupational injuries. The most common types of electrical hazards that can be found in the workplace include:

  • Ungrounded Equipment: Grounding is the method of creating a low-resistance path through the earth to prevent electrical shock
  • Overloaded Outlets: Overloading electrical circuits and extension cords can result in a fire
  • Unsafe/Non-Approved Equipment: The use of unsafe, poorly maintained or non-approved equipment can lead to electrical shorts, creating fire and/or shock hazards
  • Defective or Improperly Installed Cords: If the outer jacket of a cord is damaged, the cord may no longer be water-resistant. Consequently, the insulation can absorb moisture resulting in an excessive current leakage to the ground. Furthermore, if the wires within the cord are exposed, they may cause shock via contact
  • Electrical Cords across Walkways and Work Areas: The use of extension cords across walkways or aisles creates a potential tripping hazard
  • Unguarded Live Parts: Wall receptacles with exposed current-carrying components, as well as the presence of loose wall plates, increases the probability of electrical shock
  • Pulling of Plugs to Shut Off Power: Tugging cords to remove them from power outlets can cause the cords to burst, which can lead to electrical shocks
  • Working on "Live Equipment": Cleaning, adjusting or applying flammable solutions to equipment connected to a power supply may result in electrocution
  • Obstructed Electrical Panel Doors: In the event of an electrical malfunction, the panel door (and anything else in front of the door) will become very hot, which increases the risk of fires and explosions

Types of Electrical Injuries

Electrical injuries occur when humans become a part of the electrical circuit. There are four main types of electrical injuries: electrocution (fatal), electric shock, burns, and falls. The following factors determine the severity of electrical injuries:
  • The level of voltage
  • The amount of resistance your body has to the current flow
  • The pathway in which the current travels through your body
  • The duration of time for which the current flows through your body

Some General Safety Tips for Working with or near Electricity

  • Always wear the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). For instance, insulated gloves, coveralls and boots
  • Ensure that all fixed equipment are grounded, as well as all cords and plugs connected to the equipment. This is especially of importance if the equipment is located in wet areas as the risk of electric shock is greater in areas that are wet or damp. Install Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) as they will interrupt the electrical circuit before a fatal or injurious current occurs
  • Unusually warm or hot outlets may be a sign that an unsafe wiring condition exists. Unplug all cords from these outlets and do not use them until a qualified electrician has checked the wiring
  • Use extension cords or equipment that is rated for the level of amperage or wattage that you are using
  • Check all outlets and cord daily. Do not use outlets or cords that have exposed wiring
  • Always tape extension cords to walls or floors when necessary. Do not nail or staple them as this can damage the outer jacket of the cords
  • Ensure that exposed receptacle boxes are made of non-conductive materials
  • Firmly grip the plug, not the cord, when disconnecting equipment
  • Always disconnect the power source before carrying out any maintenance activities on equipment
  • Be knowledgeable of the location of panel and circuit breakers, in case of an emergency. Do not block access to these panels and circuit breakers

The Bottom Line

Electricity is a blessing to society, as well as a luxury that most people cannot now live without. Unfortunately, electricity does not discriminate when selecting its victims; anyone can be injured if exposed to electrical hazards. As an employee, it is important that you take precautions to minimize your exposure to electrical hazards. As an employer, it is your responsibility to control the risks associated with working with electricity. Although working with electricity can be dangerous, it can also be safe if given the respect it deserves.