Sidewalk Electrical Safety
Protecting the Public From Hazardous Light Poles & Traffic Signals
Public shocks and electrocutions due to electrical faults along city sidewalks and roads are rare in the U.S. That does not mean these hazards do not exist. Safety conditions in a workplace setting that would warrant citations, fines or shutting down operations are typically ignored in the public arena.
This article may be the first that many people have read on this topic, but in municipalities where annual light people have read on this topic, but in municipalities where annual light pole inspection and safety testing programs are mandated, inspectors find hundred or, in some larger cities, thousands of new electrical violations per year. These range from wiring faults energizing a conductive pole at full line voltage, to mechanical issues such as missing faceplates and hardware.
Sidewalks Electrical Hazards
Admittedly, the possibility of being electrocuted or shocked by an energized object found along a sidewalk is remote. Human (and dog) fatalities from fault voltages on light poles average about one every 18 months in the U.S.
The term “conductive pole” may need further explanation. For most people, metal streetlights and traffic signal poles come to mind. However, concrete and some aggregate/composite poles can also conduct electricity.
Safety reports filed with New York State Public Services Commission (2019) show just 183 reported electrical shocks from energized sidewalks infrastructure and no electrocutions in 2019. Because of the large disparity of reported shocks versus the actual number of detected energized objects as shown in the New York data, person responsible for maintaining electrical equipment along city streets and sidewalks should never presume that zero reports from the public serves as validation of an effective electrical safety program.
Sidewalk Mechanical Issues
Safety professionals know that missing faceplate cover exposing wires in an electrical box is an OSHA violation.
Safety conditions in a workplace setting that would warrant citations, fines or shutting down operations are typically ignored in the public arena.
Frequently, open poles are used as drop boxes and storage places for items involved in criminal activity or drug use. Lighting and signal technicians routinely find new or used sharps, drugs, weapons and other contraband in the base of poles.
Evaluating Sidewalk Electrical Safety
When evaluating sidewalk electrical safety, the first order of business is to determine who is responsible for what equipment. Traffic signals, school crosswalk and pedestrian warning flashers nearly always belong to the city transportation department.
In most urban areas, a combination of different equipment ownership exists. In those cases, the municipality or the utility safety department must take responsibility for the program and work with the other equipment stakeholders setting up a notification process and hold them responsible for making needed repairs.
While it is true that (currently flow in mA) x (duration of exposure in seconds) determines the outcome of an electrical shock, it is impossible to take a current reading at every light pole and traffic signal in a city in such a way that simulates the path through a human or a dog. For that reason, voltage measurements drive the sidewalk electrical safety program. By actively seeking to keep voltages levels low or at zero, safety managers can prevent hazardous levels of current from developing and protect the public.
A final point to consider: While OSHA rules generally do not apply to the public at large in a non-work environment light poles and traffic signals are remote workplaces for persons responsible for maintaining them.
IEEE. (2016). IEEE guide to understanding diagnosing and mitigating stray and contact voltage (IEEE 1695-2016). Htps://doi.org/10.1109/IEEESTD.2016.7508856
New York State Public Services Commission. (2005, Jan. 5). Order instituting safety standards. Proceeding on motion of the commission to examine the safety of electric transmission and distribution systems (Case No. 04-M-0159). Http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/View/Doc.aspx?DocRefId=%7B41FC64C3-1A22-495E-9468-7285FBBB0930%7D
New York State Public Service Commission. (2019). Proceeding on Motion of the Commission to Examine the Safety of Consolidated Edison Co. of New York Inc.’s Electric Transmission and Distribution Systems (Case No. 04-M-0159).
Tabuchi, H. (2017, Nov. 10). $300 Billion war beneath the street: Fighting to replace America’s water pipes. New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/climate/water-pipes-plastic-lead
Voigtsberger, M. (2006). Analysis of public shock and electrocution cases. www.internationalelectricalcode.com/newsletter.php?action=display&letterID=343Mark Voigtsberger is president of Florida-based Utility Testing and Geographic Information Systems LLC (www.utgis.com), which specializes in testing and inspecting utility infrastructure including water, gas, and electric systems. He has written extensively on the subject of electrical safety over the past 10 years and has developed technologies and methodologies used by various utilities to find safety hazards in their distribution systems.