Agreement focuses on electricity transmission and distribution safety (Photo courtesy of National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

An unusually broad group of electrical contractors--union and non-union--utility companies and the electrical workers' union have established a formal partnership with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop ways of improving safety in electrical transmission and distribution.

The agreement was signed Aug. 20 in Washington, D.C., by OSHA Administrator John Henshaw and top officials of contractors Henkels & McCoy Inc.; MYR Group Inc.; Pike Electric Inc.; Quanta Services Inc.; and Utility Services Inc; as well as the Edison Electric Institute; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and National Electrical Contractors Association.

"We're fighting the battle individually when really...it needs to be a collective effort," says Steven T. Theis, vice president for safety with MYR Group, Rolling Meadows, Ill. "I just think there are too many people dying in the industry."

The agreement says that the signatories "agree to mutual cooperation and to put aside differences in whatever form they may take (union vs. management; company vs. company; non-union vs. union), in order to focus on the reduction of injuries and fatalities in the industry as a whole."

OSHA's Henshaw said, "This partnership was constructed on mutual respect and trust by each organization with the single goal of reducing injuries, illnesses and fatalities in the industry."

The agreement says that it doesn't preclude OSHA inspections. OSHA by law must inspect where there is an accident that involves one or more fatalities, hospitalization of there or more workers, or if there is a complaint filed by a worker, says an OSHA spokesman. But the electrical construction agreement says, "Penalties generally will not be assessed against Industry Partners [the signatories] for non-serious violations, provided that they are abated the same day as the inspections." H.Brooke Stauffer, NECA executive director for standards and safety, says the partnership isn't a "sweetheart deal."

The number of workplace fatalities among electrical power installers and repairers averaged 37 from 1992 through 2002, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Deaths ranged from a low of 35 in 2001 to a high of 48 in 1997. In 2002, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 41 fatalities.

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In a broader-based, 1998 study, Worker Deaths by Electrocution, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said, "Electrical hazards represent a serious, widespread occupational danger..." It said that an average of 411 workers died annually from all types of electrocutions from 1980 through 1992, according to NIOSH data.

Specific safety data on the transmission and distribution segment alone are hard to come by, but there is an active grapevine running through the industry on safety matters. T. Roderick Henkels, president and CEO of Henkels & McCoy, Blue Bell, Pa., says, "If there's a fatality, everybody hears about it."

James R. Tomaseski, the IBEW's director of safety and health, estimates there are 40,000 workers, union and nonunion, in the transmission and distribution segment.
Theis of MYH says that a steering group composed of the signatories' health and safety specialists will gather and analyze data and then identify and promote best practices. One focus will be on education and training for employees and front-line supervisors and also on how to ensure that the education can be sustained over workers' careers.

Mark Ayres, director of the IBEW's construction and maintenance department, calls the group "probably the most unusual partnership that I've seen come together because of the stakeholders...It wasn't an easy feat." Ronald G. Skarphol, president and chief operating officer of Utility Services Inc., Bismarck, N.D., says planning began about a year ago.

NECA's Stauffer says that a couple of his association's chapters have alliances with OSHA but adds, "The alliances, speaking frankly, are a little more public relations oriented" but partnerships are stronger and more formal. From OSHA's standpoint, Stauffer says, "partnerships are serious, partnerships mean business." But he adds that for those who signed the agreement, "Now the hard part comes"--doing the work to reduce deaths and injuries.