Chapter Corner

Hazards and Risk

Posted in: January/February 2019

Hazards and risks are two terms that we all have to understand. It’s not necessarily just something for the electrical worker. Hazards are all around us and we all accept some level of risk each and every day but many use these terms without really understanding them. This article will help identify the differences between hazards and risks and provide some insight to how NFPA 70E looks at these two terms.
Merriam Webster tells us that a hazard is “a source of danger”. This same source tells us that “danger” is “exposure or liability to injury, pain, harm, or loss.” If we put these two definitions together we understand that a hazard is a source of exposure or liability to injury, pain, harm, or loss.
Hazards are in fact all around us every day; some we recognize and some we may not. Common hazards in our everyday life include but are not limited to the following:
  • Icy roads and sidewalks
  • Sharp knives with blades exposed
  • Poor brakes on vehicles like cars, motorcycles, trucks and more
  • The slippery floor of a bathtub

These examples present a hazard to individuals. An object itself may not be a hazard until you either place it in a precarious position or modify or use it in some way. Now let’s relate this discussion to the electrical industry.

NFPA 70E defines an electrical hazard as “a dangerous condition such that contact or equipment failure can
result in electric shock, arc flash burn, thermal burn, or arc blast injury.” Some examples of electrical hazards include but are not limited to the following:
  • Exposed energized lugs and terminations
  • Energized enclosures not bonded correctly
  • Unprotected conductors
  • Conductors with damaged insulation
  • Overhead power lines
The electrical worker has to recognize the electrical hazard and also know how to create an electrically safe work condition. The electrically safe work condition exists when the state of the electrical circuit parts have been disconnected from energized parts, locked/tagged in accordance with established standards, tested and verified to be absent of voltage and if necessary temporarily grounded. When the proper steps are
taken, the hazard can be mitigated.
In my opinion we have to separate the hazard from the object. What I mean by that is that the exposed bus of a panelboard itself is not an electrical hazard. When you take a new panelboard or residential loadcenter out of the box in your office and set it on the table or floor there’s no electrical hazard. There are other hazards you have to think about like getting cut on the box or dropping the package on your toe and more but the electrical hazard is not there because there is no energization of the product. The electrical hazard becomes real once that product is installed and connected to a source whether or not that source is turned on or kept off, the potential is there.
On the other side of this coin we have the concept of risk. Here is where words like possibility, chance, and likelihood are used. In addition severity is considered.
Merriam Webster defines risk as the possibility of loss or injury. NFPA 70E, on the other hand, defines risk as “a combination of the likelihood of occurrence of injury or damage to health and the severity of injury or damage
to health that results from a hazard.”
So 70E breaks risk into the combination of these two components:
  1. “...likelihood of occurrence of injury or damage to health...”
  2. “...severity of injury or damage to health...”
You may not realize it but these two steps are taken a lot on a daily basis. In my opinion we process risk in our subconscious where we identify the hazards, the likelihood of getting injured and we estimate the possible severity of that injury. We then make a decision without realizing that we have just completed a risk assessment and either accepted a level of risk or not or took steps to reduce risk. For example, there are individuals who will not jump out of a perfectly good airplane because they have identified the hazards, estimated the severity of injury and the likelihood of that happening to them and made a decision to avoid it. Others look at that same activity, assess the hazards and act to mitigate those hazards by taking steps to reduce the likelihood of injury by obtaining the best quality parachute, the best quality training, and preparing through practice and other precautionary steps necessary for the jump. We all have our inner level of risk acceptance as well. Some will live more dangerously than others.
Documents like NFPA 70E seek to level the playing field with regard to hazards and risks taken by providing guidance for safe work practices. The fact is when working around energized equipment, our acceptance of risk and understanding of hazards has to be closely aligned with everyone around you because one mistake impacts more than one individual. 
The electrical worker must perform a risk assessment per NFPA 70E. A risk assessment is defined as “An overall process that identifies hazards, estimates the likelihood of occurrence of injury or damage to health, estimates the potential severity of injury or damage to health, and determines if protective measures are required.”
This is why it is important that we understand what the hazards are with all of the equipment with which we work, the risk involved with the work we are doing and the severity of injury should something go wrong. Once we have this recipe, we can chart the course to determine the protective measures and steps necessary to eliminate the hazard, reduce the severity or likelihood of injury or damage to health.
As always, keep safety at the top of your list and ensure you and those around you live to see another day.
Thomas Domitrovich, P.E. is VP of Technical Sales for Eaton’s Bussmann business within the Circuit Protection Division of Eaton Corporation. Thomas is based out of St. Louis, MO and is an experienced power systems electrical engineer. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Pennsylvania. In addition to other codes and standards, Thomas is Principle member on Code Making Panel 2 for the National Electrical Code (NFPA 70) and an Alternate member on NFPA 73 for electrical inspections of existing dwelling units both representing NEMA.