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The “Shocking” Dangers of Workplace Electrical Injuries & Accidents

Electrical accidents are the cause of 5-10% of traumatic work deaths, ranking fourth behind falls and punctures for workplace-related mortalities. From 1992 through 2001 (NIOSH’s last reported statistics), 44,363 electricity-related injuries occurred. Of those injuries, 17,101 involved electric arc-flash burn.

All workers – not just cable installers and electricians, tree trimmers and landscapers, or construction workers and welders who work on or near overhead power lines and other high-voltage wiring – working in unsafe workplaces where electrical equipment might meet a damp surface or using equipment with frayed or otherwise deformed electrical cords are at-risk for electrical injury. As NIOSH has reported, “Almost all American workers are exposed to electrical energy at sometime during their work day, and the same electrical hazards can affect workers in different industries.”

If a workplace electrical injury has caused serious harm resulting in a change in quality of life or unsettled workers’ compensation claim, contact the Consumer Justice Group for an experienced workplace injury lawyer in your area. Learn more about workplace electrical hazards by reading our updated electrical injury newsletter.

Bodily Harm Caused by Electrical Injury
Workplace electrical shocks can result in a variety of severe injuries. Most commonly, these are heart injuries (including cardiac arrest), tissue degeneration, and severe burns. The sensation of electrical shock and severity of injury differ depending on the voltage, duration, and point of entry. Some of the worst onsite shocks are not felt at all.

Electrical heart injury. Electrical shock can interfere with the electrical current that regulates the heart’s cells. In severe cases, cardiac arrest (heart attack) can occur. More commonly, electrical shock causes a serious injury called cardiac dysrhythmia, a condition wherein the heart beats irregularly or too quickly or too slowly. Electrical injury can also cause necrosis (tissue death) in the myocardium (inner muscular layer of the heart).

Both alternating current and direct current present their own dangers in heart injuries and electrical burns. AC at higher voltage tends to affect the heart’s electrical rhythm while DC causes muscular contractions that result in deep tissue burns. Most electrical injuries are not caused by shock but by burns from the heat of the current passing inside (contact burns) or outside (arc flash burns) the body.

Contact (Internal) Electrical Burn Injuries
Unlike other workplace burn injuries, electrical burns may not look severe on the outside though significant internal damage occurred. The severity of any burn is a result of many factors including the type of current (AC or DC), amount of current (amperes), duration of contact, and the resistance to the current’s flow (ohms). Fortunately, dry human skin is not a good conductor of electricity. Unfortunately, internal organs are and bones offer significant resistance. This means that electrical current likes to travel through the human body, leaving charred entry and exit points in the skin after burning nerves and muscles along a bone.

Contact electrical burns occur when the electricity arcing inside the body is converted to heat. This heat commonly follows the current flow, which typically is along blood vessels and nerves. Electrical burns are usually located at the entry and exit points of the voltage. These points may appear red on the outside, grey inside, and black at the center. All tissue between these two points (such as a right wrist entry and a left heel exit) has a strong likelihood of damage.

In addition to organ tissue damage from electrical burns, sequela (secondary injury) of an electrical burn may include myoglobinemia. Myoglobin is the pigment that makes red meat red and excess levels in the blood can lead to acute renal failure (kidney failure). Internal muscular damage from electrical burns promotes the release of myglobins and can lead to this severe and sometimes terminal condition of myglobinemia.

Some of the most common electrical burn injuries occur outside of the body in the form of arc flashes.

External Arc Flash Burns and Explosions
About ten arc flashes occur onsite every day in the United States. While contact burns occur internally, arc flash burns and explosions are the result of powerful electrical current outside of the worker’s body. To get a good idea of the heat and injury arcs produce, arc flashes can reach 18,000 Fahrenheit (10,000 Kelvin), or about half of the heat energy of a bolt of lightning.

When a current jumps between two different points, it is said to “arc.” Workplace electrical burns occur by arcing faults (caused by tears or gaps in insulation) allowing electrical current to travel from its intended path. Arc flashes can ignite flammable clothing and materials, the latter allowing an arc flash’s electrical explosion to become a chemical explosion. These electrical accidents pose workplace burn injury dangers to all electricians, factory workers, or construction workers near the arc. These injuries results from the high levels of heat and intense pressure associated with the arc flash.

Though OSHA requires no special signage for electrical arc damages, The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) urges all managers to determine a flash protection boundary (FPB) within which PPE (personal protective equipment) must be worn. Arc flash hazard software also exists for businesses who want to offer their employees a safe working environment.

Two Precautions to Prevent Electrical Injury
Two OSHA-mandated precautions can help prevent serious electrical injury. Lockout and tagout procedures and GFCI circuit breakers reduce serious electrical injury.

Proper lockout and tagout (LOTO) reduces serious injuries by 10%. These are required in most cases where a worker

• Removes or bypasses a guard or safety device
• Has to place a body part where it could be injured by moving machinery
• Works near or on exposed electrical conductors
• Will otherwise be injured if accidental startup occurs

These locks and tags must be affixed in a manner that will keep the device from being shifted from the safe/off position.

GFCIs monitor the current-to-the-load (electrical pressure) and detect any leakage. When leakage exceeds the circuit breaker’s safety limit, the GFCI trips, stopping the current in fractions of a second and preventing electrocution. GFCIs thereby protect workers from common workplace electrical hazards as worn insulation on cabling and overheated wires. (Note: GFCIs do not protect a worker holding two hot wires or a hot and a neutral wire.)

These two measures and wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) can never fully eliminate all electrical injuries, but they are the best defense at present.

Immediate First Aid for Electrical Injury
If electrical injury strikes a coworker, act both fast and smart. First thing, break the connection. Before taking any measures, turn off the power source if possible. If the power source is too remote, separate the coworker from electrical source with a nonconductive object such a broom or two-by-four. Never touch a person being shocked or enter an area, especially a wet one, where you might be electrocuted. Two electrical injuries are never better than one.

Persons suffering electrical injury may stop breathing and/or lose consciousness. Attend to this trauma using CPR if you are certified. If the injured coworker is breathing and pulse is steady, attend to any burn injuries. Cool the burns with coverings that won’t stick. Do not apply ice, butter, ointment, or adhesive bandages to the burn injury.

Never move a person who has fallen from a height unless he/she is in immediate danger. Moving a person with a head injury can cause serious head and/or spinal injury.


Lawyers for Change
If your life has been drastically changed from a workplace electrical injury, contact the Consumer Justice Group. Our network of workplace attorneys and medical staff can make sure you receive the financial recoveries necessary to get your life back in order.


The Workers' Rights News is a service of the Consumer Justice Group.

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