Building Safety Month: Electrical Codes

Raymond O’Brocki

May 20, 2022

As part of Building Safety Month as well as National Electrical Safety Month, it seems appropriate to take a dive into the new national electric codes and the best practices for reducing the risk of electrical-caused fires at construction sites nationwide.

But first, consider the most recent data showing that electrical fires rank among the highest on construction sites. In fact, electrical fires are the cause of 16 percent of all construction fires but account for 42 percent of property damage. During major renovation projects, electrical is the leading cause of fire at 23 percent, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

It’s almost been two years since a fire ignited in the attic sections of a nearly finished 88-unit apartment complex in Somerville, New Jersey, causing than $16 million in damage. The fire was contained to the roof and attic sections and investigators ultimately determined faulty wiring caused the fire.

Reducing the risk of electrical fire is best achieved by adhering to codes, embracing best practices and adopting a culture of safety on the job site.

The National Electrical Codes were updated in 2020 and include changes relevant to both renovation projects and new construction sites. Some of the major changes include:

  • Requiring surge protection for residential units.
  • New regulations for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs), including required use in non-residential projects.
  • Changes that make outdoor emergency disconnects required in all new construction and renovation projects, or units in which the electrical system is being replaced in one- and two-family dwellings.
  • Modifications to the tables used to calculate electrical loads to meet the standards of energy efficiency.

We’ve also compiled a series of best practices for preventing electrical safety on construction sites. In addition, when it relates specifically to lighting, consider these important steps:

  • Equipping all temporary lighting with guards.
  • Equip temporary lighting with heavy duty electrical cords with connections and insulation.
  • Avoid suspending temporary lighting with their electrical cords.
  • Removing all temporary wiring and lighting immediately upon completion of construction.

The key to preventing electrical fires is the real-time enforcement of appropriate codes and best practices. This is what we like to call the culture of safety on construction sites.

Developing that culture starts with having a comprehensive fire safety program for each project and a Site Safety Director committed to executing and enforcing all of the plan’s details and requirements. Both are required in the NFPA but can be overlooked as routines and bad habits develop on construction sites.

We say this all the time when presenting to fire service representatives and code officials: What is predictable is preventable by adhering to the code and best practices and consistently enforcing them.