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Electrocutions Remain a Leading Cause of Death Among Laborers

Numbers can be deceiving. For example, consider that from 2003-2015, electrocution deaths in construction dropped by 39 percent. During that timeframe, the total number of construction fatalities decreased by just 16 percent. If those were the only numbers you heard, you might think electrocutions in construction were well on their way to being a thing of the past.

But there are other numbers too. Despite that 39 percent reduction, electrocutions are still the third leading cause of death among construction workers. In 2015, the most recent year for which we have fatality data, 82 construction workers died of electrocutions. That’s more than the number of workers killed by electrocutions in every other industry combined.

LIUNA General President  Terry O’Sullivan

This intersection of positive and negative news is at the center of a new report on electrocutions published by the CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training. While plenty of progress has been made in reducing electricity-related deaths in construction, this hazard is still killing an alarming number of workers.

After electricians, construction laborers are the next most likely group to be killed by electricity on the job. While tasks performed by construction laborers don’t often bring them into direct contact with energy sources such as electrical wires, power lines and transformers, fatalities are also be caused by indirect contact. Ladders, scaffolds, lifts, cranes, trucks and other construction machinery contacting power sources such as overhead or buried lines has led to many workers being killed on the job.

“LIUNA members can come into contact with electrical hazards on many types of projects, including those in construction, demolition and the public sector,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “We must continue to focus on avoiding and preventing electrical hazards on all jobsites so all LIUNA members can come home safe after a day’s work.”

Preventing Electrocutions on the Job

Contact with overhead power lines is one of the most common ways that electricity kills construction laborers. Follow these practices and procedures to prevent this potentially fatal incident from happening on your site:

  • Identify areas under power lines as high risk and restrict access for construction vehicles and equipment.
  • Avoid storing materials under power lines to reduce the need to operate construction equipment and vehicles near them.
  • Maintain a minimum clearance of 20 feet for a line of 50 kV or less and 35 feet for anything else.
  • Know your distances – measure the length of any long-handled tools or other materials being used.
  • Don’t carry or move extension ladders that are fully or partially extended. Get help moving ladders to maintain control over them.
  • Always assume overhead lines are live until you know for sure they’ve been de-energized and grounded.
  • Never approach equipment that has contacted overhead power lines. There could be enough current in the ground to shock or kill.

Electrocutions on the job can also occur from many other sources, including electrical cords, tools and buried lines. Follow these practices to help prevent these incidents:

  • Use properly installed and maintained circuit breakers, fuses and other ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs).
  • Regularly inspect and maintain tools. Take any tools with frayed wires or other damaged electrical parts out of service immediately.
  • Use the proper type of extension cord for the task at hand. Using an undersized cord can cause fire, burn or shock hazards.
  • Never connect or “daisy chain” one extension cord to another. Doing so reduces voltage capacity and can lead to overheating.

CPWR’s recent report also found that workers under age 25 suffered the highest rate of electrocution fatalities of any age group. This suggests that many new workers aren’t receiving enough training on how to stay safe when working around electricity. This problem can be addressed in part by employers holding toolbox talks to remind workers about the hazards they may encounter on the job.

Toolbox talks are one of the best ways to reach workers about safety practices and procedures on your site. The LHSFNA’s toolbox talk series can help LIUNA signatory contractors refresh workers on how to stay safe around these and other hazards. Our Electrical Safety: Working Near Overhead Power Lines and Safe Use of Electrical Cords toolbox talks build on the information included in this article. To see all the toolbox talks currently available or to order, visit and click on Publications.

[Nick Fox]

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