Workers injured by arc flash on hospital construction site: Another lesson learned

Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned in 35+ years in the electrical industry is that those who work with electricity are at risk in any and every environment, whether a building is under construction, has been open and occupied just one day, or is 50 years old and has never had an incident: Electrical accidents can (and do) happen in all kinds of environments, and it is incumbent on facility managers and property owners to ensure their facilities are safe.

A recent accident in Tallahassee, Florida testifies to this. As reported by the Tallahassee Democrat, two workers on the construction site of a new VA Hospital were seriously injured by an arc flash that occurred while they were working on a high voltage electrical panel in a maintenance room.

First responders immediately initiated life support. One worker was then flown to Gainesville – some 150 miles away – due to the extent of his injuries, while the other was transported to a local hospital. Their condition is not known as of this writing. However, it’s safe to say that their injuries were at the very least serious, and at worst, life-threatening.

According to the newspaper, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is now investigating the incident and will issue a report within a few months. In our estimation, the OSHA investigation – while indicative that OSHA is concerned about safety even in one of the most heavily regulated industries – is the least of the issues in this case.

First, there is the realization that two workers – each of whom presumably has a family to care and provide for – could have been killed and may have been permanently injured in this incident. The personal tragedy of incidents like these usually has the greatest impact and (non-financial) cost.

Second, we all need to recognize that every possible precaution must be taken to prevent incidents like this one. Again, the type of facility or environment is irrelevant. This could just as easily have happened in a school, a hospital, a manufacturing plant, an office, a grain elevator or a public swimming pool. Anytime you mix electricity and people, you run the risk of a serious electrical accident.

Third, if we’ve said it once, we’ve said it 10,000 times: Every facility manager is obligated – both morally and legally – to ensure that his or her facility is inspected regularly, and that any issues or vulnerabilities are addressed. Employers are required by law not only to have safety policies and procedures in place (including periodic inspections), but also to adequately train their employees AND to make sure those employees actually follow those procedures. Failure on any of these points puts the facility manager and the facility’s owner at great legal and financial peril.

Finally, I’ll note that many times we feel like we are beating a dead horse. Our message is the same each time we discuss or use incidents like this particular one as examples: There is no turning back the clock once an incident happens. There is no rewind button. There is no way to erase a serious injury or a fatal accident. The time to act to protect your facility, your workers, your guests and your organization is now.

Mitchell & Lindsey can help. We specialize in workplace safety by conducting thorough safety inspections, providing arc flash analysis, training workers and providing assistance in the development of policies and procedures. Give us a call today for a free and non-obligatory initial consultation.

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