How GFCI-Protected Cord Reels Ensure Electrical Safety in Construction

May 6, 2024

The dangers at construction sites in the United States are well documented, with nearly 20 percent of all workplace deaths in 2021 occurring in the construction industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction sector accounted for over 46 percent of the deaths caused by trips, slips, and falls for that same year. Yet when it comes to construction, safety issues extend beyond tripping and falling hazards, which account for just over a third of all construction workplace deaths. Electrocution is also a real concern for construction workers.

In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 166 workplace electrocution deaths in 2019, an increase of 3.75 percent over the previous year. Part of the solution to reducing such workplace hazards involves using GFCIs (ground fault circuit interrupters) to improve electrical extension cord safety. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) investigated 12 construction industry deaths related to electricity from November 2018 through October 2021 in Kansas and Missouri alone. To help boost safety and reduce hazards on construction sites, cord reels with GFCI capabilities offer a real solution.

Ensuring Electrical Safety at Construction Sites with GFCIs

A GFCI is a fast-acting circuit breaker that protects users or others nearby from electrocution. These devices save lives by sensing minute disparities within a circuit resulting from current leaking to ground. A GFCI almost immediately shuts off the electrical current going through any electric cabling, including an electrical extension cord. Safety measures OSHA promotes include recommending GFCIs to prevent electric shock from ground faults, though they also prevent the destruction of wiring insulation, fires, and overheating.

Flexible extension cabling is often used on construction sites, though these worksites also provide ample opportunities for them to be damaged by conditions on the job. This could include the edges of windows and doors, fasteners, staples, or other materials that can abrade an extension cord and simple wear and tear. Once the insulation is torn or worn off, it exposes the conductive wiring, leading to hazards like burns, fire, or shock.

For this reason, it’s important to check extension cabling for damage like absent grounding prongs, bare wiring, inconsistent connections, and sockets with cracks. Any extension cabling with physical damage should then be discarded. To avoid hazards, it’s important for every construction site where power tools are used, utilize GFCIs, which promote electrical extension cord safety. OSHA recommends GFCIs to reduce the chance of electrocution and other electrical hazards on construction and other job sites where there’s a danger of electrocution.

When a GFCI trips, it interrupts the flow of electricity. This might mean connectors or power tools may have gotten wet, for example, so stopping the flow of current through the cable will keep a worker from experiencing a potentially life-threatening electric shock. However, there are limitations to the hazards GFCIs can prevent. It won’t protect construction workers from hazards due to line contact, such as holding a pair of hot wires, a neutral and hot wire in each hand, or contact with the main power line.

Construction Standards, Electrical Extension Cord Safety & OSHA 

Choosing the best extension cable for an application depends on a job’s electrical requirements and working conditions. Selecting one that can handle the wattage needed by a power tool is important. For electrical extension cord safety, OSHA offers numerous guidelines and standards for construction sites, including the gauge size necessary, with lower number gauges indicating larger wires that can handle more current.

For extension cord safety, OSHA standards and other requirements recommend: 

  • Considering the necessary length, a longer cable won’t handle current; a shorter cable of the same gauge can. 
  • Extension cords and other fraying or worn cabling shouldn’t be used.
  • Keeping extension cords away from walkways with high foot traffic can cause damage to the cord or present a tripping hazard.
  • Only using extension cabling that’s rated for outdoor use when operating power tools outside.
  • Using only extension cabling with three-prong plugs or a polarized extension cord.
  • Not ever removing grounding pins to fit extension cords into two prong plugs.
  • Inserting cord plugs fully into outlets.
  • Pulling the plug rather than the extension cord to remove it from a power outlet.
  • Disconnecting and removing extension cables that feel hot when touched.
  • Never routing extension cables through puddles, snow or standing water.
  • At no time plugging or unplugging cabling with wet hands.
  • Utilizing GFCIs to safeguard against electrical faults.

There’s also one other recommendation for extension cord safety. OSHA and other organizations that consider workplace electrical safety standards recommend using extension cords that have been tested at independent laboratories like the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), Intertek (ETL), or Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

Extension Cord Safety: OSHA Requirements for Power Tools

Regarding extension cord safety, OSHA has numerous standards for powering electrical equipment and tools. For example, OSHA Standard 1926.404 identifies and uses grounded and grounding conductors to distinguish them from other conductors, prevents polarity reversing, uses a device or terminal to ground attachment plugs, and establishes procedures to decrease risk. OSHA Standard 1926.416, meanwhile, deals with worn or frayed cabling while noting that extension cords shouldn’t be hung on nails, stapled, or suspended above the ground with wire. To learn more about workplace extension cord safety, OSHA has comprehensive information regarding regulatory requirements for construction companies regarding electrical hazards, including the use of GFCI devices when working with electricity.

Applications for GFCI-Enabled Extension Cord Reels

While extension cord reels that include GFCI capabilities are suitable for construction sites, they can make other workplaces and even home construction safer. These GFCI-enabled extension cord reels can make electrical appliances safer if the cabling meets the device’s requirements.

Commercial Construction Sites

Reels for extension cords are perfect for use on construction worksites, as they allow workers greater mobility. They attach easily to electrical construction equipment and power tools, such as welding machines, electrical cement mixers, or cranes. Extension cord reels can then be brought closer to power equipment and where the work is being done.

However, ingress protection (IP) ratings are necessary for any extension cords used for construction, especially outdoor work. For example, GFCI-equipped cabling certified as IP60 will protect against dust, though not against water, while an extension cable rated as IP67 can withstand both dust and immersion in water. However, in most cases, an IP66-certified extension cord can protect against poor weather conditions.

Commercial Uses

Businesses may also find operating equipment on a GFCI-equipped extension cord reel useful. OSHA requirements would essentially be the same as for a construction site, providing a means to run equipment like power tools away from a power source. As per residential usage, these reels can also operate appliances like microwaves and refrigerators for break rooms or even office equipment like desktop computers, printers, and scanners.

Industrial Use

For factories and other industrial use, extension cord reels protected by GFCI need to be more robust. The cabling must be heavy-duty and more durable than that used for residential or even commercial purposes to provide reliable electricity when and where it’s needed. These reels need to handle much of the same rigorous handling as those used on construction sites, including using GFCIs to promote extension cord safety. OSHA requirements for extension cabling for industrial use are the same as those used by the construction sector.

Benefits of GFCI Usage for Extension Cord Safety

Though they cost more, quality extension cords with GFCI protection support extension cord safety. OSHA standards for cabling and the reels that help power them offer significant user benefits. While extension cords vary in price according to length, quality, and size, cabling equipped with GFCI protection is priced higher. The benefits of GFCI-enabled cables are worth it.

Advantages of using GFCI-protected cables include: 

  • Automatically detects any leakage of current.
  • Can use safely in moist or wet areas where standard cabling would be hazardous and possibly fail.
  • Features durable connection and plug system.
  • GFCI-enabled cords protect against electric shock.
  • Made of higher quality materials.
  • Overload protection is built into the cabling to prevent overheating and short circuiting.
  • Protect electrical devices and equipment against short-circuiting or overload that can destroy them.
  • Safer than standard cords.
  • Tend to last considerably longer than standard cords used in similar conditions.

Enhanced by GFCI-supported cabling, extension cord safety is bolstered, aligning with OSHA mandates focused on safeguarding individuals, particularly workers. However, for contractors on-site, power surges pose a risk of damaging costly tools. This not only results in operational delays but also necessitates the consideration of expenses incurred for repairs or replacements.

Tips for Choosing, Using & Storing Extension Cords 

An extension cord that supports GFCI offers many benefits for construction workers. However, not every GFCI-enabled cable has the same capabilities. For those sourcing them, it makes sense to do some research. While gleaning information from online sources is a great place to start, contacting an electrician or knowledgeable distributor (or manufacturer) of electrical equipment would be a good next step.

When choosing a GFCI-protected extension cord, consider: 

  • The risk of electric shock to people in the environment.
  • Source cabling that’s long enough to reach the equipment that requires power.
  • A manual was provided by the manufacturer to help you understand how best to use a new GFCI extension cable effectively and safely.
  • Extension cable amperage rating to ensure it’s suitable for the application.
  • Only high-quality cords, as cheaper and lower quality cabling, will be more expensive in the long run, as they won’t last as long and may damage equipment.

An extension cord with GFCI protection can be used with an ordinary cord, though the cabling with GFCI should be plugged directly into the outlet. However, it’s best not to use it with a standard cord if it can be avoided. The equipment and connectors should be dry before the GFCI is turned on to ensure safety. It’s also not a good idea to keep it plugged into higher-wattage equipment for longer periods, as it can damage the cord or electrical device.

Storing any extension cord can be a hassle, as they tangle easily, so reels are recommended for extension cord safety. OSHA also has standards for reels used with electrical cabling, including how such devices are mounted. Most extension cord reels can be attached to various surfaces, like ceilings, walls, workbenches, or even the floors of vehicles. A GFCI-protected extension cord reel can thus both provide a means to organize the cable and keep workers safe.

Find a GFCI-Protected Reel Solution from Alert Reel

Alert Reel Manufacturing makes custom, premade, and retractable reels with circuit breakers to encourage extension cord safety. OSHA-sanctioned protection is also available with the portable GFCI devices that we distribute. To learn more about our products, contact the extension cord reel experts at Alert Reel.