fcafotodigital/Getty Images
Getty Images 154934400

Can We Improve Safety for Utility Workers?

Sept. 14, 2022
It is still chilling to realize that a person died every 111 minutes in 2020 from a work-related injury.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 4,764 fatal work injuries in the United States in 2020, revealing an impressive 10.7% decrease from the 5,333 fatalities in 2019. While this reduction is very positive, reflecting the lowest number of annual workplace deaths since 2013, it is still chilling to realize that a person died every 111 minutes in 2020 from a work-related injury. North America Industry Classification System (NAICS) utilities sector data show a reduction of 13.6% in fatalities, declining from 22 deaths in 2019 to 19 deaths in 2020. Is it possible that work restrictions, heightened safety awareness or reduced construction activity due to the pandemic contributed to fewer fatal accidents? Also, is there a key ingredient, a so-called silver bullet, which can help us further reduce electrical worker fatalities across all industry sectors?

Before addressing these questions, following are several statistics from the 2020 BLS results. For all job classifications, transportation accidents (1,778 fatalities); falls, slips, and trips (805 fatalities); contact with objects and equipment (716 fatalities); violence and other injuries caused by persons or animals (705 fatalities); and exposure to harmful substances or environments (672 fatalities including 126 from electricity) accounted for the highest number of deaths. Repeating last year’s success, the utilities sector (which includes electrical workers) thankfully did not make it into the most dangerous occupations (see graphic). The most dangerous industry sector is now construction, which includes electrical contractors with 63 deaths and power and communication line/structure contractors with 30 deaths included among the 1,008 fatal work injuries during 2020.

Power/electrical contractor analysts will be unable to obtain direct intelligence from government records regarding Covid-19’s contribution to the fatalities recorded by the BLS. The agency has stated that occupational illnesses, including COVID, are out of scope for its Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) reporting, unless a death is precipitated by an acute injury. Even if that were the case, the agency has indicted it will not attempt to publish COVID-19 specific data because information on COVID related fatalities in source data is inconsistent and often unavailable. Likewise, BLS is not directly covering COVID-19 specific data in its Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOIL). It is up to the private sector to determine how COVID is affecting the incidence of workplace injuries and fatalities, if at all.

Positively, the total number of deaths in the construction sector declined by 5% from 2019 to 2020. However, comparing the 2020 fatality counts across sectors (14 for utility workers and 93 for electrical contractors) highlights continued effort is needed to reduce all fatalities, but particularly electrical contractor deaths. This recognition leads to an important question: Is there a key difference between these work groups that explains the difference in workplace deaths and once addressed will reduce fatalities of electrical construction workers? A deep dive into BLS data might reveal useful insights, including years on the job, age, the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE), training and statistics such as fatalities per hours worked and duration of hours worked in fatality cases.

Some industry analysts believe digital devices such as wearable smart-technology personal protective equipment (PPE) are the silver bullet for revolutionizing safety and health in the workplace, particularly in constantly changing environments like the construction sector. Smart PPE can be customized to provide job specific situational and physiological data; device-to-device connectivity; detection of dangerous substances, conditions, and equipment; and even worker to worker proximity for social distancing and contact tracing. These capabilities allow companies to better protect workers and track behavior in the workplace to improve operating protocols, safely shorten tasks and identify risky behavior.

Another view supported by OSHA studies is that training and procedures regarding electrical safety in the workplace are more effective than PPE for preventing injury and death. The argument is that helping companies and employees recognize and reduce exposure to risks is better than trying to protect workers in a perilous situation. Many companies like the AVO Training Institute offer excellent electrical safety training for new and experienced electrical workers, supervisors, and safety managers. Training should meet mandated training required by OSHA 1910 and help workers better understand the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC), NFPA 70E, ASTM and other applicable electrical safety regulations.

It is difficult to pinpoint a single silver bullet for mitigating electrical worker fatalities. Rather, it may be a combination of factors, including ensuring workers are fit for duty; have the latest safety training and procedures for their job; and have high quality PPE and understand its limitations. Potentially most important is the objective of eliminating unsafe conditions and promoting safe behavior. National Safety Month provides a valuable annual reminder that it is everyone’s job to keep oneself and others safe.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!