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Preventing Electrical Shock: GFCIs


Insulation and grounding are two recognized means of preventing injury during electrical equipment operation. Conductor insulation may be provided by placing nonconductive material such as plastic around the conductor. Grounding may be achieved through the use of a direct connection to a known ground such as a metal cold water pipe.

Consider, for example, the metal housing or enclosure around a motor or the metal box in which electrical switches, circuit breakers, and controls are placed. Such enclosures protect the equipment from dirt and moisture and prevent accidental contact with exposed wiring. However, there is a hazard associated with housings and enclosures. A malfunction within the equipment—such as deteriorated insulation—may create an electrical shock hazard. Many metal enclosures are connected to a ground to eliminate the hazard. If a "hot" wire contacts a grounded enclosure, a ground fault results which normally will trip a circuit breaker or blow a fuse. Metal enclosures and containers are usually grounded by connecting them with a wire going to ground. This wire is called an equipment grounding conductor. Most portable electric tools and appliances are grounded by this means. There is one disadvantage to grounding: a break in the grounding system may occur without the user's knowledge.

Insulation may be damaged by hard usage on the job or simply by aging. If this damage causes the conductors to become exposed, the hazards of shocks, burns, and fire will exist. Double insulation may be used as additional protection on the live parts of a tool, but double insulation does not provide protection against defective cords and plugs or against heavy moisture conditions.

The use of a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is one method used to overcome grounding and insulation deficiencies.


The ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is a fast-acting circuit breaker which senses small imbalances in the circuit caused by current leakage to ground and, in a fraction of a second, shuts off the electricity. The GFCI continually matches the amount of current going to an electrical device against the amount of current returning from the device along the electrical path. Whenever the amount "going" differs from the amount "returning" by approximately 5 milliamps, the GFCI interrupts the electric power within as little as 1/40 of a second. (See diagram.)

Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter

Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter

However, the GFCI will not protect the employee from line-to-line contact hazards (such as a person holding two "hot" wires or a hot and a neutral wire in each hand). It does provide protection against the most common form of electrical shock hazard--the ground fault. It also provides protection against fires, overheating, and destruction of insulation on wiring.


With the wide use of portable tools on construction sites, the use of flexible cords often becomes necessary. Hazards are created when cords, cord connectors, receptacles, and cord- and plug-connected equipment are improperly used and maintained.

Generally, flexible cords are more vulnerable to damage than is fixed wiring. Flexible cords must be connected to devices and to fittings so as to prevent tension at joints and terminal screws. Because a cord is exposed, flexible, and unsecured, joints and terminals become more vulnerable. Flexible cord conductors are finely stranded for flexibility, but the strands of one conductor may loosen from under terminal screws and touch another conductor, especially if the cord is subjected to stress or strain.

A flexible cord may be damaged by activities on the job, by door or window edges, by staples or fastenings, by abrasion from adjacent materials, or simply by aging. If the electrical conductors become exposed, there is a danger of shocks, burns, or fire. A frequent hazard on a construction site is a cord assembly with improperly connected terminals.

When a cord connector is wet, hazardous leakage can occur to the equipment grounding conductor and to humans who pick up that connector if they also provide a path to ground. Such leakage is not limited to the face of the connector but also develops at any wetted portion of it.

When the leakage current of tools is below 1 ampere, and the grounding conductor has a low resistance, no shock should be perceived. However, should the resistance of the equipment grounding conductor increase, the current through the body also will increase. Thus, if the resistance of the equipment grounding conductor is significantly greater than 1 ohm, tools with even small leakages become hazardous.


GFCIs can be used successfully to reduce electrical hazards on construction sites. Tripping of GFCIs—interruption of current flow—is sometimes caused by wet connectors and tools. It is good practice to limit exposure of connectors and tools to excessive moisture by using watertight or sealable connectors. Providing more GFCIs or shorter circuits can prevent tripping caused by the cumulative leakage from several tools or by leakages from extremely long circuits.


OSHA ground-fault protection rules and regulations have been determined necessary and appropriate for employee safety and health. Therefore, it is the employer's responsibility to provide either: (a) ground-fault circuit interrupters on construction sites for receptacle outlets in use and not part of the permanent wiring of the building or structure; or (b) a scheduled and recorded assured equipment grounding conductor program on construction sites, covering all cord sets, receptacles which are not part of the permanent wiring of the building or structure, and equipment connected by cord and plug which are available for use or used by employees.


The employer is required to provide approved ground-fault circuit interrupters for all 120-volt, single-phase, 15- and 20-ampere receptacle outlets on construction sites which are not a part of the permanent wiring of the building or structure and which are in use by employees. Receptacles on the ends of extension cords are not part of the permanent wiring and, therefore, must be protected by GFCIs whether or not the extension cord is plugged into permanent wiring. These GFCIs monitor the current-to-the-load for leakage to ground. When this leakage exceeds 5 mA ± 1 mA, the GFCI interrupts the current. They are rated to trip quickly enough to prevent electrocution. This protection is required in addition to, not as a substitute for, the grounding requirements of OSHA safety and health rules and regulations, 29 CFR 1926. The requirements which employers must meet, if they choose the GFCI option, are stated in 29 CFR 1926.404(b)(1)(ii). (See appendix.)


The assured equipment grounding conductor program covers all cord sets, receptacles which are not a part of the permanent wiring of the building or structure, and equipment connected by cord and plug which are available for use or used by employees. The requirements which the program must meet are stated in 29 CFR 1926.404(b)(1)(iii), but employers may provide additional tests or procedures. (See appendix.) OSHA requires that a written description of the employer's assured equipment grounding conductor program, including the specific procedures adopted, be kept at the jobsite. This program should outline the employer's specific procedures for the required equipment inspections, tests, and test schedule.

The required tests must be recorded, and the record maintained until replaced by a more current record. The written program description and the recorded tests must be made available, at the jobsite, to OSHA and to any affected employee upon request. The employer is required to designate one or more competent persons to implement the program.

Electrical equipment noted in the assured equipment grounding conductor program must be visually inspected for damage or defects before each day's use. Any damaged or defective equipment must not be used by the employee until repaired.

Two tests are required by OSHA. One is a continuity test to ensure that the equipment grounding conductor is electrically continuous. It must be performed on all cord sets, receptacles which are not part of the permanent wiring of the building or structure, and on cord- and plug-connected equipment which is required to be grounded. This test may be performed using a simple continuity tester, such as a lamp and battery, a bell and battery, an ohmmeter, or a receptacle tester.

The other test must be performed on receptacles and plugs to ensure that the equipment grounding conductor is connected to its proper terminal. This test can be performed with the same equipment used in the first test.

These tests are required before first use, after any repairs, after damage is suspected to have occurred, and at 3-month intervals. Cord sets and receptacles which are essentially fixed and not exposed to damage must be tested at regular intervals not to exceed 6 months. Any equipment which fails to pass the required tests shall not be made available or used by employees.


This discussion provides information to help guide employers and employees in protecting themselves against 120-volt electrical hazards on the construction site, through the use of ground-fault circuit interrupters or through an assured equipment grounding conductor program.

When planning your program, remember to use the OSHA rules and regulations as a guide to ensure employee safety and health. Following these rules and regulations will help reduce the number of injuries and accidents from electrical hazards. Work disruptions should be minor, and the necessary inspections and maintenance should require little time.

An effective safety and health program requires the cooperation of both the employer and employees.

Source: U.S. Dept. of Labor Office of Safety & Health Administration