NEC and Worker Safety
The National Electrical Code® (NEC) is a document that seeks the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity. This document offers value to those who work on electrical systems. The NEC is an installation code that includes provisions from which the electrical contractors benefit. These provisions exist in the system for years after the structure is built and in operation.
When it comes to electrical safety for the worker, you may automatically migrate to NFPA 70E, “Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace,” but that’s not where you should stop. The NEC actually includes many provisions that are there for the electrical worker to help complement, and actually implement, the efforts of NFPA 70E. Remember, NFPA 70E differs from the NEC in some key ways that help illustrate how these documents work hand-in-hand for electrical safety for the worker.
Installation Code vs. Work Practice
First let’s talk a little about the differences between NPFA 70, the NEC, and NFPA 70E, “Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace.”
NFPA 70E is a “standard” that addresses electrical safety related work practices for employee workplaces that are necessary for the practical safeguarding of employees relative to the hazards associated with electrical energy during specific activities that include but are not limited to installation, inspection, operation, maintenance, and demolition of electrical conductors and equipment. This standard is not an installation requirement. NFPA 70E is not enforced by the electrical inspection community but rather more often than not enforced after the fact by OSHA.
This is where the NEC plays a complementary role in this safety picture. The NEC is a “Code” that is enforced and addressed in the design and installation phases of the structure. The NEC seeks to provide the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity through provisions that are considered necessary for safety. As noted earlier, the Code is enforced at the time of installation.
Lockout/Tagout is a good area to explore to illustrate the potential of how these two documents can and do work together. NFPA 70E includes practices around Lockout/Tagout going into great detail to help the worker ensure equipment is de-energized before work is conducted and assure it remains in that state while work is being conducted. The NEC complements this practice, as you will see below, with installation requirements then ensures provisions to affix Lockout/Tagout equipment to disconnecting means is present even when the lock is not in place.
The following discussion identifies areas of the NEC that help to provide safety for those who work in and around electrical equipment. This list is by no means an exhaustive research into this subject but rather offered as discussion points listed below with examples to help you understand this important relationship between the NEC and NFPA 70E.
- Working Space and Guarding
- Signs, Labels, and Markings
- Making Safe
- Arc Flash and Shock Protection
Working Space and Guarding
Having space to perform your work is fundamental when it comes to safety. When appropriate space is not afforded for the electrical worker, accidents are more likely. The NEC recognizes this fact. Article 110, “Requirements for Electrical Installations,” is a great place to start when it comes to requirements around working space. Sections 110.26, “Spaces about Electrical Equipment;” 110.32 “Work Space About Equipment;” 110.34 “Work Space and Guarding;” and 110.73 “Equipment Work Space” are specific sections that address this issue.
These sections saw a slight change in NEC 2014 as a distinction was made with respect to including “Switchgear” equipment in these requirements. In addition, some changes were made in requirements for outdoor locations as part of 110.26(E)(2) where a section for “Dedicated Equipment Space” was added. Ensuring that space is designed in and enforced at the time of installation is important for those who come years later to service the electrical equipment. Space is not important just for those times when justified energized work is performed; it is important any time work is performed.
Signs, Labels, and Markings
We could probably have a very good discussion about all of the signs, labels, and markings in and on such electrical equipment as panelboards and switchboards. Some may say they mean nothing, and others may say they mean everything. Regardless of how you feel about this topic, the fact is that every sign, label, and/or marking is important for your safety, especially if you are going to work on a piece of equipment.
The NEC incorporates many places where markings, labels, and signs are required, all of which an electrical worker should take advantage. In addition to UL standards that products must adhere to, the NEC works to ensure consistency in this area. NEC 2014 took another step forward to help make that happen with changes made in Section 110.21(B),“Field-Applied Hazard Markings.” This section now includes language that brings in a reference, through an Informational Note, to ANSI Z535.4-2011, “Product Safety Signs and Labels.” This document provides guidelines for suitable font sizes, words, colors, symbols, and location requirements for labels. This section addresses words, colors, and symbols and addresses how they should be placed and the durability of the label.
In addition to the what and how, the NEC also addresses all of the where when it comes to this topic. From arc flash hazard warning labels on gear (Section 110.16“Arc-Flash Hazard Warning”) to cable tray labels (230.44 “Cable Trays”) and the cables themselves (210.5(C) “Identification of Ungrounded Conductors”), the sections provided here are merely examples as there are many more throughout the NEC on labels and markings. The labels and markings are there to raise awareness and ensure that you are working with the correct equipment. Hazards that you may not be aware of are brought to light as demonstrated in Section 404.6, “Position and Connection of Switches,” where the awareness that load side terminals may be energized is brought forth through the requirement for a label with the following language “WARNING — LOAD SIDE TERMINALS MAY BE ENERGIZED BY BACKFEED.”
As with any electrical project, ensuring safe work conditions is essential; working de-energized should be priority one. The NEC includes important provisions to help you increase safety on the job site. Provisions in the code make disconnecting means available when needed as well as help ensure all conductors are de-energized when the circuit is turned off. The NEC caps off the installation with provisions around illumination.
Disconnecting means are peppered throughout the NEC. Notable sections include 110.25 where the NEC puts in place the provisions to affix the Lockout/Tagout tools highlighted by NFPA 70E. This section of the code requires that where a disconnecting means is required, it must be lockable in the open position. The provision in this section of the NEC, which is new for NEC 2014, is such that the provisions for locking must remain in place with or without the lock installed. A good example of disconnecting means provisions can be found in Article 430 where a disconnecting means must be provided for motors as part of Section 430.102(B). There are other areas in the NEC that provide requirements around disconnecting means. All of these types of provisions are there to facilitate working de-energized.
In addition to disconnects, seeing what you are working on is also very important and the NEC is not shy about requirements in this arena. Right up front in Section 110.26, where spaces about electrical equipment are discussed, 110.26(D), “Illumination,” requires that illumination be provided for all working spaces around service equipment, switchboards, switchgear, panelboards, or motor control centers installed indoors. This section also requires that this lighting is NOT controlled by automatic means only. You must be able to ensure the light does not automatically turn off just when you need it the most. Another area of the code that expands on this requirement includes battery locations. Section 480.9(G), “Illumination,” for example includes similar provisions to that in 110.26 to ensure working spaces where battery systems are located are illuminated.
Arc Flash and Shock Protection
Incident energy and electric currents can kill. The NEC includes provisions to help mitigate the effects of both for the electrical worker.
Prior to NEC 2011, the NEC addressed the arc flash problem via a label requirement in Section 110.16. NEC 2011 introduced Section 240.87 to provide methods that act to reduce the level of incident energy. Justified energized work unfortunately has to happen at times. When this work is conducted, methods to reduce incident energy are critical for safety. The NEC now has provisions to do just that.
Shock protection, on the other hand, has been a part of the NEC for quite some time. Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) afford protection that saves lives. The NEC works to ensure that workers are protected from shock in various portions of the NEC. The most notable location in the Code focuses on temporary power, Article 590 for temporary installations. Shock protection provisions are included as part of Section 590.6, “Ground-Fault Protection for Personnel.”
Again, these are only small examples of how the NEC works to ensure worker safety. There are many other sections that could be used as examples as well.
Electrical safety is more than just applying a product or sitting through a training class; it’s a regiment of training and procedures implemented in combination with technology that saves lives. The NEC and NFPA 70E work together to help you in your quest for safety. But remember, we can be very knowledgeable and have all of the best safety solutions employed in our facility and yet still not achieve our goals for safety. If you don’t use your plans and strategies, that investment was all for naught. You must get moving and work to make a safe environment for you and those around you. Be an advocate of safety by at least doing the bare minimum – share your knowledge with those around you. Be that mentor that makes a difference in an apprentice’s life. Spread your knowledge; it just may save a life or keep someone out of the hospital.
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 a National Application Engineer with IEC Platinum Industry Partner Eaton Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has more than 20 years of experience as an electrical engineer and is a LEED Accredited Professional. He is active in various trade organizations on various levels with IEC, the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association (NEMA), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Domitrovich is involved with and chairs various committees for NEMA and IEEE and is an alternate member on NFPA 73. He is very active in the state-by-state adoption process of NFPA 70, working closely with review committees and other key organizations in this effort.