A better understanding of NFPA 70E: The safety of future electrical workers

Blog Post created by ccoache Employee on Nov 12, 2018
If the National Electrical Code® (NEC®)covers the installation of electrical equipment and provides for the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity and NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®addresses electrical safety-related work practices for employee workplaces then how does someone span the gap between the two? That statement may surprise many of you. There’s a gap between the two standards? How can that be? From the questions I receive regarding both standards, there is a difference between what could be done and what is required to be done. 
The NEC covers the installation of electrical equipment. When electrical equipment is installed in compliance with the NEC, properly designed electrical equipment does not normally pose a risk to a person interacting with the equipment under normal operating conditions. NFPA 70E also covers a person interacting with the equipment under normal operating conditions but not from the installation aspect. NFPA 70E approaches safety from the procedural aspect of interacting with the equipment. NFPA 70E furthermore covers electrical safety when an employee is exposed to electrical hazards or the equipment is not under normal operating conditions. Neither of these conditions are addressed by the NEC. Again from NFPA 70E this is from a procedural viewpoint. So where is the gap between the two? It is in how many people approach electrical safety. Often the safe installation is completed then an electrical safety procedure is developed to address situations when an employee is exposed to electrical hazards.
Should it be that installation is installation and employee electrical safety is employee electrical safety and never the twain shall meet? Since the NEC and NFPA 70E are not always utilized by the same person and since the use of the NEC is often legislated, many consider electrical installations and electrical safety programs to be separate and distinct from one another. Something not required for a NEC compliant installation is historically not done. The NEC provides installation requirements for equipment operating at kilovolts, kiloamps and kilojoules. Correctly installed there are no exposed electrical hazards. Installation is not presumed to be energized work therefore the NEC does not address safe work practices. NFPA 70E addresses how to protect an employee when those electrical hazards are exposed. So if everyone is protected where is that gap?
I receive many questions regarding electrical safety. When descriptions of some designs and installations are given, if the question is regarding NFPA 70E, I often ask why is it being done that way. The answer usually is because the installation is permitted. I often mention that since employees will be exposed to electrical hazards when performing justified energized work, there are ways the exposure might possibly be eliminated or reduced. The reply is often that such an installation is not required. That is the gap I am talking about. There are those who install equipment in a safe manner and those who must work in a safe manner while exposed to electrical hazards. Safe work practices are not part of a de-energized installation and installation is not a work practice for exposed electrical hazards. 
For electrical safety to progress for anyone interacting with electrical equipment, electrical safety should to take a holistic approach. There are thousands of ways to install a piece of equipment while complying with the NEC requirements. One method is selected but all would result in a safe installation. The equipment will be operated safely. However, the decision to install in a particular manner can have a great effect on someone responsible for maintaining that equipment. That installation decision has a lasting impact on electrical safety for the life of that equipment. These decisions need to be made prior to installation in order to be effective. Touch safe terminals, fast-acting overcurrent devices, or some other engineering controls are installation decisions that can have a significant impact on the safety for future employees. 
Both installation and work practices impact electrical safety but they are separate and distinct electrical industries. There is no limit to the amount of energy that a safe installation can contain. However, once an employee is exposed to those hazards hindsight regarding the installation decision is too late. Electrical safety procedures are written to address the resultant electrical hazards when the safe installation is moved into a maintenance situation. In a holistic approach to electrical safety, the installation considers justified employee exposure to hazards and methods of controlling them. Under that condition, the future employee exposed to the hazards is not only protected by the installation but by the work practices. Do your electrical installations consider the future?
For more information on 70E, read my entire 70E blog series on Xchange
Next time: Non-fatal injury statistics.
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