The owner of a college facility in Mississauga, Ontario, was recently convicted and fined almost $20,000 for hiring an unlicensed contractor to complete electrical work on site. The worker died on the job after being electrocuted while working on wiring that carried 347 volts of electricity, which had not been disconnected from power.
“This is a tragedy for all concerned,” says Scott Saint, chief public safety officer for the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA). Two people have paid the price – one with his life and the other with this conviction and the knowledge of this incident for the rest of his life.”
Occupational electrical-related fatalities and injuries are a significant and ongoing problem, according to the ESA. This risk of shock is heightened when water comes into contact with electricity. That said, as vulnerable communities across Canada continue to experience bouts of flooding, facility owners and operators are being urged to understand the proper steps to restore power after a flood, and legal requirements when hiring contractors to do electrical work.
Every year, a fatality or critical injury is reported among electrical workers. Research shows that these incidents are preventable, and the cause is usually from working on energized equipment.
“Electricity is unforgiving and lethal and rarely gives a second chance,” says Saint. “If a facility undergoes flooding, you can’t assume it’s safe to go in. If water has risen above outlets you don’t want to go near that water, as electricity can move through it. Make sure the power is cut off because if water is energized, you may get electrocuted.”
Safe steps for restoring power after flooding
When electrical rooms are located in a basement, water could rise into the components. Power must be shut off, and once the water recedes, a licensed electrical contractor, with a license number, should assess and repair damage. There is a chance wet equipment may need to be replaced. Not only will electrical systems and breaker panels need examining, but also machinery and appliances, which could cause a fire later on.
Facility occupants should not plug in or use electrical appliances that have come into contact with flood waters until the appliances have been checked or serviced by the licensed electrical contractor or appliance service provider.
Rough weather events, such as flooding, which sometimes comes with heavy rain and wind, can cause downed power lines. In the past decade, 37 per cent of all electrical-related deaths were from power line contact. Some of these incidents occurred when cleaning out debris from eavestroughs or trimming hedges, bushes and branches.
Compliance is key. In Ontario, a contractor is required to take out an electrical permit with ESA so there is a record of the work completed. Having the ESA issue a certificate of inspection provides due diligence. It ensures that work has been done according to the Ontario Electrical Safety Code, and is good mitigation for liability because a third party is validating the hired contractor’s work.
ESA will inform the utility that it is safe to reconnect power and the utility will restore power when it is able to do so. After the work is done, facility staff should ask the contractor for a copy of the ESA certificate of inspection for their records and insurance.
Electricians who are already employed at a facility will still need to take out permits to complete work. Whether it’s an expansion or replacement, ESA inspection rules need to be followed.
“Sometimes, something as simple as changing a ballast on a lighting fixture leads to death or injury,” says Saint. “All workers should de-energize the power of a system, even if it’s lighting. It’s better to leave tenants in darkness for a short period of time than risk a life.”
Licensing enforcement has been in effect for the past 10 years; however, ESA continues to receive complaints and implement process stemming from prosecution. Often, this enforcement deals with people who operate an electrical contracting business or who claim they are master electricians without holding a valid license (ECRA/ESA in Ontario).
Acoording to ESA, an electrical contractor needs to “prominently display” her/his ECRA/ESA Electrical Contractor Licence number in all correspondence, contracts and advertisements, on business vehicles and, generally, in all situations where they are communicating with the public. This also includes yellow page ads and websites.
ESA regularly conducts enforcement inspections and investigations, and issues administrative fees, laying of charges and prosecutions for those who choose to violate the regulations.
“Sometimes, unqualified individuals try to do work themselves to save money in the short term,” says Saint. “What they don’t realize is they are leaving a hazard for later. They could get hurt or cause a fire and shut down the facility.”
Hazards can include hooking up systems incorrectly and leaving the metal box energized when it shouldn’t be.
“The next person who enters a building to change a light fixture or another repair doesn’t realize the previous person wired it wrong. If they touch the metal box and then touch another metal piece, they could be electrocuted,” adds Saint. “We’ve seen deaths occur because of incorrect wiring, which wasn’t the fault of the person who died.”