Electrical panels can be found in just about every business. However, because they are not typically out in the open or inspected daily, it’s easy to overlook electrical panels and the potential risks associated with them.
Without the proper precautions, things like exposed wires, faulty components and improper grounding create a host of exposures—exposures that can severely disrupt or harm an organization. But of all the concerns associated with electrical panels, one common and often overlooked issue relates to maintaining proper clearances.
This Risk Insights provides a general overview of the dangers associated with improper electrical panel clearances and the related Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Electrical Code (NEC) requirements.
Why Maintain Proper Clearances?
Simply put, businesses must maintain proper clearances around electrical panels to promote ease of access during service, repair and operational procedures. The following are some common scenarios where electrical panel clearance is critical and directly affects the safety and well-being of your employees:
- Shutting down equipment during an incident—In the event of an equipment malfunction or similar safety incident, workers must be able to access electrical panels. This allows them to easily shut off potentially harmful equipment and secure the work area. This is particularly important for equipment that does not feature an emergency shut-off switch.
- Repairing and maintaining electrical panels—When panels are obstructed, they are more difficult to access and maintain. What’s more, if a worker is servicing an electrical panel and has to contend with nearby obstacles, they are more likely to make a mistake or injure themselves. This risk is compounded if the employee is working on live electrical components.
- Storing materials and performing work—Businesses that store hazardous or combustible materials too close to electrical panels run the risk of starting fires. What’s more, when employees perform work nearby an electrical panel, they could accidently hit or damage it, creating potential electrocution hazards.
To help organizations maintain the proper clearances and ensure workplace safety, OSHA and the NEC have specific clearance requirements all organizations must follow.
An Overview of Electrical Panel Clearances
There are a number of clearance distances established by OSHA and the NEC that must be maintained at all times. These clearances relate specifically to the depth, width and height of the working space around electrical equipment.
While the minimum depth clearance distance is 2.5 feet for installations built before April 16, 1981, there are a number of more precise requirements depending on voltage and what OSHA and NEC guidelines call conditions:
- Condition A—There are exposed live parts on one side of the working space and no live or grounded parts (e.g., concrete, brick or tile walls) on the other. Under these conditions, the clearance distances are 3 feet for any voltage between 0 and 600.
- Condition B—There are exposed live parts on one side of the working space and grounded parts on the other. Under these conditions, the clearance distances are 3 feet for voltages between 0 and 150, and 3.5 feet for voltages between 151 and 600.
- Condition C—There are exposed live parts on both sides of the working space. Under these conditions, the clearance distances are 3 feet for voltages between 0 and 150, and 4 feet for voltages between 151 and 600.
In addition to the above, there are clearance requirements as they pertain to the width of a working space around electrical equipment. Specifically, the working space around electrical equipment must be as wide as the equipment or 30 inches, whichever distance is greater.
The required height of a working space around electrical equipment will largely depend on when a particular installation was built:
- For installations built before Aug. 13, 2007, the height of the working space must be 6.25 feet.
- For installations built on or after Aug. 13, 2007, the height must be at least 6.5 feet from the floor, grade or platform. It can’t be lower than the height of the equipment.
In addition, all panel doors must be able to open at least 90 degrees to allow clear access.
A Lasting Solution
While it’s important to understand the risks and requirements associated with electrical panel clearances, it’s equally important to implement workplace controls to mitigate risks long term. While a business can comply with OSHA and NEC rules by simply moving materials away from a panel, this does not address underlying issues that create clearance concerns in the first place.
To ensure your organization adopts proper electrical panel protocols, consider training employees on the applicable requirements. In addition, it’s a good idea to clearly label working spaces that are affected by the rule, using signage, barricades and floor markings to indicate required clearance distances.