A substantial share of electrical injuries occur as a result of work activities.
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Studies of patients at hospital burn centers have found that the majority of patients reporting with electrical burns were injured while working (Brandt, et al., 2002; Singerman et al., 2008), and the American Burn Association reported in 2014 that 61% of electrical burns with known injury circumstances from 2004-2013 were work-related (3638 out of 5955 fatalities). Data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate that 525 workers suffered fatal injuries due to contact with electrical current from 2008- 2010, which would represent 55% of the 961 injuries among all members of the population (work and non-work) due to exposure to electric current, radiation, temperature, and pressure that were reported by the National Safety Council during those years. BLS also reported 7000 non-fatal injuries due to contact with electrical current from 2008-2010. A more detailed review of fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries from 2003-2012 is provided in a separate section of this report.
Construction workers account for a disproportionate share of electrical injuries, and there have been a number of studies examining electrical injury in this population. (McMann, 2003; Janicak, 2008; Ore and Casini, 1996; Salehi et al., 2014) From 1992- 2002, 47% of workplace electrocutions took place in the construction industry (Cawley and Homce, 2006) and construction workers have been found to be approximately four times more likely to be victims of workplace electrocution than workers in all other industries combined. (Ore and Casini, 1996) Risk of electrocution is greatest among young construction workers, particularly workers aged 16 to 19 years. (Janicak, 2008; Ore and Casini, 1996) In recent research by Lombardi and co-authors (2009) examining non-fatal as well as fatal electrical injuries utilizing workers’ compensation claims, non-fatal injuries comprised 98.8% of cases. The researchers found that service industries accounted for the highest share of claims, 33.4%, followed by the manufacturing industry (24.7%), retail trade (17.3%), construction (7.2%), and finance, insurance, real estate (5.7%). The research also found that while electric shock (48.8%) and burns (19.3%) were the most frequent types of injury, 31.9% of injury claims included a variety of injury types, including strain and sprain, contusion, inflammation, laceration, sprain, syncope, foreign body, fracture, and hearing loss. (Lombardi et al., 2009)
Another critical factor that draws attention in literature on electrical injury and work is that there may be substantial barriers to successful return to work. (Wesner and Hickie, 2013; Theman et al., 2008; Stergiou-Kita et al., 2014) In addition to any physical limitations that affect job performance, the neurological effects may encompass behavioral changes, as well as memory and attention issues, and irritability, anger, and physically aggressive behaviors have been noted in electrical injury victims with no prior history of mood disorders, creating evident strains in the work environment. As indicated earlier, even low-voltage injuries can produce psychological and neurological impairments that adversely impact the ability to return to work. (Theman et al., 2008) Research based on in-depth interviews with electrical injury victims identified three distinct challenges to returning to work after electrical injury: physical, cognitive, and psychosocial impairments and their impact upon work performance, feelings of guilt, blame, and responsibility for the injury; and difficulty in returning to the workplace where the injury occurred. (Stergiou-Kita et al., 2014) Social support from family, friends, and co-workers and receipt of rehabilitation services were beneficial sources of support identified by the research.
The need for more or better electrical safety training programs that target all workers exposed to electrical safety hazards is emphasized in a number of studies. Lombardi and his co-authors point out that many of the injured workers in their study worked in industries, such as services and retail trade, that do not routinely emphasize electrical safety training. In research of burn center patients, 69% of patients who were injured at work identified themselves as electrical workers, and the researchers suggested that non-electrical workers may not have received adequate training in electrical safety. (Brandt et al., 2002) A corporate case study examining electrical injury reporting and safety practices found that 40% of electrical incidents involved 250 volts or less and were indicative of a misperception of electrical safety as a high-voltage issue. In addition, electrical incidents once again were found to involve a large share of non – electrical workers, with approximately one-half of incidents involving workers from outside electrical crafts, leading to an expansion of electrical safety to include all those potentially exposed to electrical hazards. (Capelli-Schellpfeffer et al., 2000) Research of electrical fatalities in construction found that the highest proportion of fatalities occurred in establishments with 10 or fewer employers and pointed out that smaller employers may have fewer formal training requirements and less structured training in safety practices. (Taylor) The high share of electrical fatalities among worker s in younger age groups has also been seen to call for special training efforts . (Janicak, 2008)
Literature on electrical injury has tended to focus on shock and electrocution, while devoting comparatively little attention to injuries resulting from arc flash or arc blast. Research on electrical burns nevertheless shows that burns from electric flash are responsible for many of the work-related burns treated at burn centers. Research at a Michigan burn center found that 34% of patients injured on the job received flash injuries, with direct contact with electric current accounting for the remaining injuries. (Brandt et al., 2002) Arc flash injuries represented 55% of the electrical work-related burn injuries in the Ontario research cited earlier, while 37% of the injuries were due to electrical contact and the remaining injuries had no information concerning burn type. (Singerman et al., 2008) In research involving burn patients in Brazil, 20% of the injuries were flash burn injuries, and 37% of these involved third-degree burns, while the remaining 63% were second-degree burns. (Luz et al., 2009) A study of electrical injuries over a 20-year period at a Texas burn center found that 40% of burns were electrical arc injuries, and that while mortality was the lowest relative to other electrical burns in this group, burn size was the largest, and the mean length of stay was 11.3 days. (Arnoldo et al., 2004) A paper by Ralph Lee in 1982 states that temperatures of electric arcs can reach up to 35000°F at the arc terminals, with lethal burns possible at a distance of several feet from the arc and severe burn injuries common at distances of 10 feet. (Lee, 1982) Clothing can ignite at temperatures from 400°C to 800°C, and arcs may expel droplets of molten terminal metal of 1000°C or more, burning skin or instantly igniting clothing. Arc burns are seen to most often be experienced by electrical workers working close to energized parts of high fault capacity.
A common estimate of arc flash occurrence is 6 that there are 5 to 10 arc flash explosions in electrical equipment every day in the U.S., but the origins of this estimate are unclear. (Kowalski-Trakofler and Barrett, 2007) Among the studies of electric arcing injuries is research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health into arcing injuries in the mining industry. (Homce and Cawley, 2007) The research noted that electrical burn injury rates in mining had either remained constant or increased during seven years from 1992 -2002 while those rates were decreasing for all industry in the U.S. To explore this trend, the research examined 836 incidents involving “noncontact electric arc burns” from 1990-2001 using data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The occupations of those who experienced the most injuries were electricians (39%), mechanics (20%), preparation plant workers (6%), and laborers (5%). Work activity at the time of the incident most often involved electrical maintenance or repair work, but many of the events occurred as a result of equipment failure (such as circuit breakers) during normal operation of equipment. A subsequent paper by the authors indicated that 19% of the events occurred during normal operation of equipment. (Cawley and Homce, 2007) Other equipment components involved in the arcing events included conductors, non-powered hand tools, electrical meters, and plugs and connectors. Voltage was reported in 35% of arcing events and was 600 volts or less in 84% of these reports and over 1000 volts in 10% of reports.