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Protection vs prevention: What's your electrical safety approach?

By Andy Cochrane
| www.cos-mag.com

Despite awareness campaigns, industry statistics and loss summaries, annual safety conferences and numerous industry associations driving the safety message, our approach to electrical safety is often reactive rather than proactive.

I am not pointing fingers because I was one of those reactive people, and I did not take electrical safety as seriously as I should have, until we had an electrical fire at home. Around 3:00 A.M. one morning, my son came into our bedroom and shouted that his bedroom was on fire. We rushed out of bed, saw the flames for ourselves (by which time the solitary smoke detector on the upper level had sounded), woke the other two younger children and made our way downstairs. I called 911 while my wife put the kids in the car. A few moments later we were all safe, watching our house burn and the firefighters doing their job admirably.

Thankfully, no one was injured and my two older children had received some fire safety education at school. We had a defined escape route but beyond this, we were not adequately prepared for such an event. Sure, we had smoke detectors on each level of the home and one fire extinguisher, but this was sorely inadequate.

The investigation showed there to be a wiring issue that led to overheating of a lamp resulting in ignition of insulation material, and we discussed with the fire department corrective action that we could easily undertake.

Damage was minimal at $24,000 but, by far, the bigger impact was the inconvenience of spending 12 weeks living in a hotel, filling out insurance form after insurance form, hunting for receipts to validate date of purchase and amount so that claims could be processed, buying new clothes and trying to replace personal items.

Once we returned to the repaired home, we installed smoke detectors in every bedroom, we installed carbon monoxide detectors on every level, we strategically placed fire extinguisher on every level and once again reviewed our fire escape plan. It was then that I came across an article on risk control hierarchy and realized that, while the steps we had taken were all valid, they were aimed at protection not prevention. They were aimed at reacting quicker and more effectively to the next incident.

The smoke detectors in every room provided personal protection, as did the fire extinguishers. The practice of not using extension cords or extension plugs as a safety precaution provided an administrative response to being safer by avoiding overheating. Our continued effort to practice and establish escape routes provided an awareness of how to react, but none of these can actually prevent another event from occurring. I spent $100 on additional detectors, etc. to react quicker and more effectively, but had not implemented one real change that would avoid the next electrical fire.

We then started to look closer at the idea of more effective electrical panels and outlets, lowering or substituting our risk and, of course, options for eliminating the risk. We had a new electrical panel installed with AFCI (arc fault circuit interrupters) for all bedroom circuits; we had all of our electrical outlets replaced and our aluminum wiring updated with copper tails and, finally, we implemented the simple but effective step of unplugging everything in the bedrooms at night.

This investment cost $2,800 and allowed us to avoid any further incident. With a little foresight and being proactive instead of reactive, this investment of $2,800 would likely have prevented the fire, the inconvenience, the replacement and rebuild cost of $24,000. If only I had viewed the $2,800, not as an expense, but as an investment in preventing a greater issue.

What about industry?

Unfortunately when it comes to electrical safety, industry remains in a reactive state, even though the potential for losses is more significant and the frequency of occurrence higher.

Whether we are the safety officer, operations manager, facilities engineer, the CEO or an insurance associate, we can and must change this approach.

One leading U.S.-based insurance company notes that, over a seven-year period, its clients reported 228 losses that were attributed to ground faults resulting in payments of $180 million. There were 72 occurrences in the commercial sector, hotels, universities, hospitals and shopping malls at an average cost of $830,000, and 156 occurrences in manufacturing locations with an average cost of $769,000.

In addition, statistics suggest there are five to seven arc flash incidents per day in North America requiring hospitalization.

Direct and indirect costs of electrical incidents have a huge impact on organizations. The direct costs include equipment repair and replacement, as well as the medical costs associated with injuries. Some of the indirect costs are those associated with business interruption such as unscheduled delays, employee training and redeployment, accident investigation, legal costs and possible fines.

Quite often, the impact of business interruptions and other indirect costs significantly outweigh the direct costs. The U.S. National Fire Protection Association notes: “During the five-year period of 1994 through 1998, an estimated average of 16,900 reported industrial and manufacturing structure fires caused 18 civilian deaths, 556 civilian injuries, and $789.6 million in direct property damage per year.” From this we can estimate that the average equipment and property damage from an electrical fire is $46,700.

There is a significant human cost to electrical accidents. Arc flash victims may suffer from chronic pain and scarring. Injured workers may have difficulty re-integrating into the community, and may experience anxiety, depression or other psychological symptoms. The social and economic costs may also be high. Workers’ compensation pays only a portion of lost wages. Some workers may not be able to return to their pre-injury job. Employers bear the costs associated with lost productivity, reduced competitiveness, employee rehiring and retraining, and may be subjected to increases in workers’ compensation premiums.

Published data from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries notes that from September 2000 through December 2005, 350 Washington workers were hospitalized for serious burn injuries occurring at work. Of these, 30 (9 per cent) were due to arc flash/blast events. Total Workers’ Compensation costs associated with these 30 claims exceeded $1.3 million, including reimbursement for almost 1,800 days of lost work time. From this, we can estimate that the indirect impact in terms of personnel costs for an electrical incident average $43,000.

Business interruptions due to unscheduled downtime, repair, spoilage, etc., varies by industry with per-hour costs ranging from $15,000 for automotive companies, to $24,000 for mining and metal companies, to $90,000 for airline reservation companies.

When we add up the costs of equipment and property damage, personnel costs, business interruptions, possible fines and other indirect costs, it is quite easy to get an overall total cost in excess of $500,000 per incident — that’s in line with the experience of the insurance company detailed above.

Protection vs prevention

Why, then, do we start electrical safety with a focus on protection, rather than prevention. We quite readily invest in safety awareness training; we purchase and post warning signs; we insist on safety goggles and gloves, and perhaps even PPE (personal protective equipment). Yet, we do not invest in prevention nor take the steps necessary to eliminate or reduce the likelihood of an electrical incident.

The most common grounding method used in North America, for both commercial and industrial facilities, is called solidly grounding. In this method, the neutral points have been intentionally connected to earth ground with a conductor having no intentional impedance. This partially reduces the problem of transient over-voltages associated with ungrounded systems, which was the primary reason for this option’s growth since the 1970s.

However, this grounding method has the highest incident level of arc flash events and electrical fires. There are an estimated 60,000 industrial facilities in North America that operate ungrounded and 210,000 industrial facilities that operate solidly grounded — despite the higher level of risk.

The least common yet safest grounding method used today in North America is resistance grounding, where a resistor is connected between the neutral of the transformer secondary and the earth ground. The reasons supporting this option for electrical grounding can be found in several IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) Reference Guides: IEEE 142, Recommended Practice for Grounding of Industrial and Commercial Power Systems and IEEE 141, Recommended Practice for Electric Power Distribution for Industrial Plants

The cost of investing in prevention technology ranges from $15,000 to $100,000, depending on the size and complexity of the operation being protected. Still, that’s far below the $500,000 cost impact explored earlier. The likely payback in investing in prevention technology is less than a year — more likely one to six months.

Recently, there was an electrical fire at a recreational facility that resulted in consequential damages of $1,000,000 — mostly in business interruption costs. As the forensic engineers and insurance investigators conducted their reviews, the focus was solely on product failure and finding someone to blame. They reviewed all aspects of the electrical equipment that was specified and installed — including settings and commissioning reports — but not once did they stop to ask themselves whether the decision by the consulting engineer to specify a solidly grounded system may have been a contributing factor.

Industry data indicates that solidly grounded system has the highest likelihood of arc flash hazard. Why is it then that when a tragedy occurs, investigators question everything but the chosen grounding method? There are practical reasons for specifying a solidly grounded system, especially when there’s an abundance of neutral loads to be served. But surely in this scenario there is a responsibility on the specifying engineer and the operating owner to ensure that mitigation technologies such as ZSIP or optical arc detection are installed so that, when an arc occurs (which is possible at some point over the life of the equipment), the impact is limited and safety assured.

Industrial and commercial facilities — as in our own homes — have protection options: we should be made aware and understand the risks involved with electricity; we should have the necessary protective clothing and equipment; we should complete electrical safety awareness training; we must also start to take a more proactive stance and start investing in prevention technology.

I contacted my insurance broker after the house fire and advised him that I was installing new smoke detectors, and it was recommended that they be wired into the telephone system so that 911 was automatically notified in the event an alarm was triggered. By doing this, the insurance broker said, I could save 10 per cent on my monthly insurance costs (and this more than covered the cost of installing new smoke detectors). When I called again to advise that I was also updating the wiring and installing a new electrical panel with AFCI breakers to reduce, if not eliminate, the root causes, I was told there would be no further reduction in premium.

So when I take protective measures to react quicker, I receive a benefit from the insurance industry; when I make a more significant investment in preventive measures, then the insurance industry sits on the sidelines.

Prevention technology is available now. It should be our first choice, not our last. As industry leaders, we must view it as an investment, not a cost. As safety professionals or facilities managers, we must change our thinking from protection to prevention. The payback is definable and real (and it sure would help if the insurance companies provided some support).

It’s time to get serious about electrical safety.

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Andy Cochrane is the president of I-Gard Corp., a developer and manufacturer of products that protect power equipment and the people who use them. Visit www.i-gard.com. This article was originally published in Electrical Business magazine.

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