Every industry has a huge swath of workers who are at risk of coming into contact with electrical energy in their workplace. Some employees know what the hazards are and how to navigate them safely, but many don’t. This is a major problem because exposure to a live electric current can cause a serious injury or fatality.
While most safety management systems include elements of electrical safety, some companies fail to properly account for electrical hazards. This is especially true in the construction industry, where electrical incidents are far more common than in any other sector. In 2019 alone there were 166 electrical fatalities, an increase over the previous year and the highest number of deaths since 2012.
As a safety professional, it’s important to make sure you’re taking the proper steps to guard against electrical incidents in your workplace. There are four major areas safety managers can focus on to dramatically reduce the risk of electrical injury.
Company safety program
The first step to cutting down on electrical incidents in your workplace is to audit your company’s safety policies and programs to ensure they include all the essential elements. The foundation of your policy should be built on relevant OSHA regulations, the National Electrical Code and any other relevant industry standards specific to your business. This is imperative, as your company risks fines and penalties if it isn’t compliant.
The best safety programs, however, rise above the minimum. To bolster your workplace electrical safety measures, start by identifying all tasks or jobs that put workers in proximity to electrical energy. Then assess each task to determine best safety practices, including prevention controls, PPE, and equipment requirements. Take it a step further by evaluating how the work environment, safety climate, company culture and human factors like rushing may modify workers’ actions and potential exposure to electrical hazards.
This document will serve as the company blueprint for your electrical safety efforts going forward, so don’t just file it away. Use it as a foundation for ensuring you have all the necessary safety equipment and training, and that you’re taking all the proactive steps that you can to protect employees. You may also want to share it with others and solicit feedback, and revisit it from time to time in order to adjust it as necessary based on any changes in the workplace.
Equipment and procedures
Defective or deficient electrical safety equipment is a notable contributor to workplace incidents. Providing and maintaining the necessary safety equipment is part of an employer’s responsibility to keep staff safe. The equipment your company needs should be identified as part of the electrical safety policy outlined above. Ensure that any equipment purchased is up to industry standards. The equipment should be marked as tested and labeled with its load capacity. Educate employees on the importance of only using equipment with load capacities that are sufficient for the job at hand. You should also schedule inspections so that you don’t let too much time go by without checking that equipment is safe for use.
In tandem with providing the correct electrical safety equipment, each task that workers perform should be designed to minimize employees’ exposure to electricity. Whenever possible, workers should interact with guarded or grounded electrical components and with circuit protection devices in place. If there is a live electrical current that cannot reasonably be guarded, grounded or armed with circuit protection, then it’s necessary to change the procedure to minimize the number of workers exposed and the time spent working on the task.
Training and education on electrical safety is critical to protecting workers from electrical hazards. Training sessions should include basic electrical concepts, including electrical hazard awareness and recognition. The goal is to provide a practical understanding that workers can rely on in their day-to-day jobs. For example, the assumption that all powerlines are insulated is a common one that leads to worker injuries. An employee who is educated and trained on how powerlines work is much less likely to get injured or killed because of an incorrect belief.
Use the procedures developed when crafting your organization’s electricity-focused safety policy to inform the electrical safety training most relevant to your workplace. Workers should be trained extensively on any PPE, equipment and safe work practices identified in your policy. If working directly with electrical systems, be sure to implement lockout/tagout procedures and train workers on how they work. For employees who are regularly exposed to high-risk tasks, additional training on first aid and CPR can also be valuable.
Immersive training practices, where staff are regularly drilled and tested on their knowledge and abilities, are much more effective than theory-only classroom education, so keep that in mind when developing training practices. It’s worth noting that a variety of human factors like fatigue, miscommunication and rushing can increase the risk of an electrical incident. So while human factors and safety awareness training may not strictly fall under the umbrella of electrical safety training, they nonetheless will help with electrical safety procedures and may end up reducing the number of electrical incidents in your workplace.
Wrap it all up with electrical tape
Electrical incidents can’t be eliminated overnight. But there are a few steps that safety managers can take to begin reducing their likelihood of occurring. Begin with a comprehensive plan that takes into account what’s required by legislation and what’s recommended by best practices. It’s important to also consider a variety of non-electrical factors that may still influence the risk posed by electricity—these include mental and physical states of mind, culture and climate. From there, make sure that proper equipment is provided to employees and conduct regular inspections to ensure it stays in good working order.
And, just as importantly, train employees on the ins and outs of electrical safety and procedures like lockout/tagout. Don’t be afraid to augment the training with additional awareness training and human factors education. It’s also a good idea to reinforce training with regular refreshers and toolbox talks.
These steps might look a little different from one company to the next, but in almost every case, they offer a practical and effective way to reduce the number of employees who are hurt and killed by electrical hazards.