Qualcomm’s Payout: What We Can Learn About Employer Responsibility

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What is Employer Responsibility?

OSHA’s list of employer responsibilities to their workers is not short. To name a few, employers must provide any and all required medical exams and training when required by OSHA, establish or update operating procedures that all workers can read and understand, and make sure employees have and use safe tools and equipment. At the top of the list is this requirement: “Provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards and comply with standards, rules and regulations issued under the OSH Act.”

NFPA 70E has its own section of employer responsibilities, 110.3, which lists host employer and contractor employer responsibilities.  The host employer must inform contractors coming onto their site of any known hazards covered by 70E that are related to the work to be done. The host must also let the contractor know information about the installation of the equipment the contractor has been hired to work on.

The contractor has similar responsibilities towards their own employees. The contractor must make sure the employee knows of the hazards that the host employer communicated to the contract employer. He must ensure each employee follows the work practices required by 70E and the safety-related work rules instructed by the host employer.

First Line of Defense

De-energizing electrical equipment is the first line of defense against shock and arc flash hazards. Then the equipment needs to be verified that it’s dead, and subsequently locked/tagged with approved company lock/tag devices. Finally, for all those who will be working on the equipment, personal protective equipment should be worn while performing the job, especially if electrical hazards in or around the worksite cannot be placed in an electrically safe condition. This PPE must be provided and worn to protect the electrical worker from any remaining electrical hazards, including shock and arc flash.

Accident at Qualcomm & Jury’s Decision

Qualcomm is a global semiconductor and telecommunications company and one of the largest employers in San Diego, CA. In 2013, a Los Angeles-based contractor traveled to Qualcomm’s headquarters in San Diego to inspect equipment on the Qualcomm site that was going to be upgraded. The contractor was told the entire system would be de-energized while he was doing the inspection. A second contractor, an engineer from a different contracting company, was also on-site to do this job.  This contractor removed the cover of a 4,160V circuit breaker in order for the first contractor to inspect it. Unfortunately, the equipment was still energized, and an arc flash occurred. The contractor suffered burns over 35% of his body.

A Superior Court jury found Qualcomm headquarters in San Diego to be 46% negligent.  The other contractor, Irvine-based Transpower Testing Inc, was found 45% negligent. The contractor who was injured was judged 9% negligent. The jury awarded the victim $7.1 million.

While the injured contractor’s lawyers asserted that Qualcomm failed to provide a safe working environment, the company argued back that the worker did not verify that the equipment was in fact dead. They also argued that no permission was granted to remove the protective cover of the circuit breaker.

What We Can Learn

Communication is key for creating an electrically safe work environment. NFPA 70E provides clear guidance of all steps that are critical to this process. Electrical workers must never assume a safe working state, and must always verify that electrical power has in fact been removed, and that all possible sources of feed have been locked, tagged, and verified prior to commencing assigned tasks. Supervisory personnel play a critical role in setting up and ensuring a safe electrical work environment and are the electrical safety gatekeepers. This supervisory role can never be minimized or taken lightly, and the importance of this role is magnified when contractors are on a company’s site. Clear, precise, written work flow plans, along with key indicators, GANT and PERT charts, and critical paths, can help to ensure that all personnel operate within project guidelines and keep safety at the forefront. When it comes to electrical safety, we cannot afford to leave anything to chance – this includes host company management, contractor supervision, and all electrical workers. The other side of the electrical safety coin is usually not a good outcome.

Ken Sellars

Ken Sellars

Ken Sellars is an instructor of electrical safety, NEC, Grounding/Bonding and Arc Flash Safety courses nationwide. Read more about Ken.

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