Working with electricity is dangerous. According to OSHA, most workplace incidents involving electricity are caused by unsafe equipment and/or installation, unsafe environment, or unsafe work practices.
What’s more, electrical violations are so common that they seem to have a permanent place on OSHA’s top ten list each year. They are also a part of the construction industry’s Fatal Four—the four leading causes of worker deaths, which were responsible for over 64 percent of construction fatalities in 2015.
OSHA’s electrical standards are designed to protect employees from electric shock, electrocution, fires, and other electricity-related occurrences. Methods of preventing these incidents involve the use of guarding, insulation and electrical protective devices, grounding, and safe work practices.
It’s vital to enclose electric equipment so that nobody comes into contact with its live parts. Electrical equipment should be accessible only to authorized personnel and be kept in a separate room or on an elevated platform. Alternatively, it can be enclosed with permanent screens. But if a piece of equipment has any exposed parts operating at 50 volts or more, you must take all possible precautions to guard it.
EHS managers should also post relevant signage to warn people of the electrical hazards related to the equipment.
Insulation and electrical protective devices
Insulators stop or reduce the flow of electrical current, which can have a huge impact on the number of shocks and short circuits. However, not only does the insulation material (glass, rubber, plastic, etc.) have to be suitable for the voltage, it also has to be the right material for the environmental conditions as temperature, moisture, and foreign substances can all affect an insulator’s performance or cause it to fail.
Insulation on conductors is often color-coded and deviating from this coding system can lead to fatal incidents (this is one of the reasons why proper training is essential when dealing with electricity). To protect employees and others who might be working with electrical equipment, safety managers should confirm that proper insulation is used for the voltage and environment involved and that it is correctly color coded.
Additionally, circuit protection devices such as fuses, circuit breakers and ground-fault circuit interrupters are required. If there is an overload, ground fault or a short circuit within the system, these devices limit, stop or interrupt the flow of electricity or de-energize the circuit. This can save a life when a fault occurs.
Grounding is intentionally creating a low-resistance path that connects a tool or electrical system to the earth. Grounding can prevent the buildup of voltages that could cause an electrocution, but it needs to be remembered that although grounding reduces the risk of an electrical incident, it doesn’t guarantee that someone won’t be shocked or injured.
Safety professionals and every employee who works with electrical systems should be aware of the difference between a service/system ground and an equipment ground. While the former protects equipment or insulation, the latter is designed to protect the user. This way, there are two grounding paths for the current, which means that even if the piece of equipment becomes energized, the additional ground protects the worker.
Training and safe work practices
There are many workers who are inexperienced and yet do not receive appropriate training or equipment. As a result, they are at a greater risk of being hurt or killed by electricity every day.
There are also many experienced workers with the relevant education and practice, who know how to behave around electrical hazards and who are aware of all the safety requirements. Sadly, numerous serious and fatal incidents happen to them despite their experience due to faulty equipment or wiring. In some cases, a simple circuit tester could have saved a life. This is why thorough training and regular refreshers should always accompany all the necessary safety equipment. Electrical safety training may make a worker question or reconsider something they otherwise wouldn’t deem hazardous.
However, compliance training isn’t enough to sufficiently boost employees’ safety awareness when they’re working with electricity. When providing electrical safety training in the workplace, consider including human factors in the program. It could help experienced workers stave off the effects of complacency and provide new workers with the skills to err on the side of caution. The right training can make employees more aware of their surroundings when performing electrical work and allow them to recognize the states of mind that can lead to distraction. As a result, workers will be less likely to trust the “off” button without realizing that faulty wiring might still be carrying power and be better able to consider the danger of overhead cables when working on the ground.
Human factors training promotes safe actions and improves the work culture to the point where safe practices become a habit rather than a compliance requirement to be enforced. When working with electricity such practices include adhering to LOTO regulations, de-energizing electric equipment before inspection or repair, proper maintenance or replacement of faulty tools, and using protective equipment and PPE. A healthy culture doesn’t allow for rushing a job if it means overlooking integral electrical safety practices.
Employers are responsible for providing a safe work environment and, when it comes to electricity, that includes hazard recognition, planning and construction considerations. Regular inspections give safety managers the chance to find any damage, decay or wear and tear in an electrical system that needs to be addressed. In addition to assessing physical hazards and safety guards or barriers to ensure their good condition, remember to inspect the warning signs on and around any electrical equipment, and replace them if they’re faded or peeling off.
When employees have to leave the workplace and perform their jobs on sites you are not familiar with, plan for a possibility that other managers and supervisors might not be as caring about their electrical equipment, wiring, and systems as you are. Prepare your workers and provide them with the training and equipment required (including safe tools and PPEs suited to the job) to face a possibly dangerous job.
Electrical equipment and wiring can carry risks that are not immediately visible. The best protection is provided by knowledge and the right tools for the job.