Can saving lives or avoiding injury be reconciled with saving time and money — more commonly seen as a route to cutting corners — on construction sites?
Yes, of course. Because following correct safety procedures to protect yourself and others avoids stoppages and the associated costs.
Even though there has been a steady decline in fatalities and injuries over the past couple of decades, there is still huge scope for improvement in safety in the construction industry.
In particular, electrical safety on work-sites is a key target for improvement.
The construction industry still accounts for more than half of all fatal electrical injuries and a loss of an average of 10 days per non-fatally injured person (of whom there are more than 2,200 every year in the US).
Construction site ground-fault protection provides a powerful safety case in point.
Every year, one out of every 40 workplace fatalities is caused by exposure to electric current,* but that number would likely be significantly higher were it not for ground-fault protection.
Understanding Grounding and GFCI’s
If you’re in the construction or electrical contracting business you’re undoubtedly already aware of the need to manage risk on-site. There are potential hazards everywhere — and safety gear to protect against them, from protective clothing to fast-acting power circuit breakers, better known as ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs).
You probably know too that grounding is the process of creating a path for a current to travel to earth. When there’s a fault in that path, the current will follow any other available route, including through the body of someone who is in contact with it via a power tool. That can kill.
GFCIs work by sensing small imbalances in a power circuit, usually caused by leakage to ground. They can shut down the supply in a fortieth of a second, way faster than a fuse and enough time to protect someone who has themselves become the conductor to ground.
Though there are others, this is the most common type of electrical shock construction site hazard.
In simple tech terms, the interrupter monitors the flow of current into the “hot” and out to the grounded neutral conductors. A difference of more than 4 to 6 milliamps will trip it, shutting down power.
Cause and Prevention of Construction Site Ground-Fault Accidents
Water or even just dampness are the big enemies of construction site electrical supply. As far as possible, connectors and tools should not be exposed to excessive moisture. Watertight and sealable connectors and guarding of power tools offer the best solution.
Bad or worn wiring, weak terminal connections, stressed or frayed cords and cables, and poorly insulated power tools all contribute to the risk of injury or death
In most cases, the more GFCIs or shorter circuits you use, and the better insulated your power tools (double-insulation is best), the more you reduce the risk of a grounding accident.
Approved GFCIs must be provided for all 120-volt, single-phase, 15- and 20-amp outlets that aren’t part of the permanent wiring of the site structure.
Of course, the level of protection is only as good as the GFCIs themselves and the manner in which they’re installed and maintained.
For example, it should be standard practice to test the interrupter before it’s used, each and every time. If the GFCI itself is non-functional, there may be no visible evidence of this.
Testing is simple: Press the test button, plug in a lamp, press the button again. The lamp should light. Press the button again so that it pops out and the light should go out. If the on-off process doesn’t follow this route, don’t use the GFCI.
Similarly, all power tools, casings and cords should be carefully inspected before use (and before plugging in!), and all site operatives should be made aware of the location of live lines and use caution when they’re nearby.
Legal Requirements for Construction Site Ground Fault Protection
You are subject to Federal and local safety regulations on a construction site. In this case, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lays down GFCI standards, and the corresponding protection rule and regulations, in Title 29 of Federal Regulations Part 1926.
Specifically, says OSHA, “it is the employer’s responsibility to provide either: (a) GFCIs on construction sites for receptacle outlets in use and not part of the permanent wiring of the building or structure; or (b) a scheduled and recorded assured equipment grounding conductor program on construction sites, covering all cord sets, receptacles which are not part of the permanent wiring of the building or structure, and equipment connected by cord and plug which are available for use or used by employees.”
The assured equipment program calls for a written description of grounding equipment and the associated daily inspection and testing procedures, which must be kept on-site.
A record of test results must also be maintained, with the first tests — checking conduction continuity and grounding connections — completed before use. The tests have to be repeated after any repairs, and at three-monthly intervals.
In practice, it’s possible to combine both GFCIs and an assured equipment program for maximum construction site electrical risk management.
Need More Risk Management Advice?
You owe it to yourself, your employees, and your reputation to implement and follow all designated safety procedures on construction sites. Failure to fulfill your responsibilities could result in injury, death and a costly lawsuit.
If you want to broaden your understanding of ground-fault protection in general and GFCIs in particular, you’ll find an extremely useful online guide, including standard safety rules, from Electrical Construction and Maintenance (EC&M) magazine.
You can also visit OSHA’s dedicated GFCI web pages here.
On the wider issue of risk management in the construction industry, a good insurance agent specializing in contractor protection should be able to answer questions and provide risk management guidance as a matter of course.
As our name and reputation make clear, we are here to protect businesses in Lancaster County and beyond. For straightforward, knowledgeable advice on risk and protection of your business, please contact Robertson Insurance & Risk Management.
* Source: All statistics from Electrical Safety Foundation International