Have you checked your employees' toolboxes lately? If they supply their own tools, maybe you feel it's none of your business.

Think again! According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), "All hand and power tools and similar equipment, whether furnished by the employer or employee, shall be maintained in a safe condition." This standard makes it your responsibility. And, aside from the legal concern, consider the cost of accidents. Many injuries result from mishaps with hand tools and hand-held power tools.

The OSHA regulations governing tools can be found in 29 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) "Subpart I Tools - Hand and Power." The standards in Subpart I, Parts 1926.300 through 1926.307, address all types of hand tools and hand-held power tools including pneumatic tools, abrasive wheels, and jacks.

The tool standards, which appear when OSHA is queried for citations issued to electrical contractors are "1926.300 General requirements" and "1926.302 Power operated hand tools." Focusing on these standards as the foundation for basic tool safety may reduce the potential for costly accidents with minimal effort.

The General Requirements mandated by OSHA seem geared to the manufacturer. However, they offer the criteria for inspection and maintenance. All tools must have the appropriate safety switch. Power tools with wheels or blades larger than 2 inches in diameter must have a momentary on-off switch. When the finger is released, the power is off. Jigsaws or other similar tools with blades of .25 inches or greater must also use a momentary "on/off" switch. Tools with smaller blades or wheels may have a positive "on/off" switch.

Proper guards are also a basic requirement. They must provide protection from moving parts and flying chips and sparks. For example, guards must cover the nip points of a belt sander. Circular saws require a guard covering the upper part of the blade and a lower guard that covers the bottom of the blade. The lower guard may be retractable, but must automatically go back in place when the saw is not in contact with the work.

If the use of the tool creates exposure to other hazards, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) must be worn. For example, drilling holes in concrete may release silica dust. When exposures exceed the permissible levels, ventilation must be provided or a respirator worn. If PPE is used, make sure you comply with all applicable regulations.

When using power tools the applicable standard is "1926.302 Power-operated hand tools." Requirements found here address electric power-operated tools, as well as pneumatic and powder-actuated tools. As mentioned earlier, this is one of the standards for which electrical contractors have been cited. Take care to ensure employees are apprised of the proper use of these tools. Citations can be issued for actions such as hoisting equipment by the cord or hose, use of compressed air for cleaning the work area or equipment at pressures greater than 30 pounds per square inch or lack of a ground on electric tools. (NOTE: Compressed air should never be used for cleaning dust or other materials from an employee's body.)

Additional precautions, which are not spelled out in the standard, should be taken to avoid injuries.

- Hoses and cords should be kept clear of heat, sharp edges, and oils. These will cause undue wear.
- Caution employees to keep fingers away from the start buttons when not using the tool and to disconnect tools when not in use. This includes inspection or servicing of the tool.
- Employees should be instructed to make sure they have good balance and footing before attempting to use tools.
- Job assignments should limit the number of employees in an area where tools are operated. Observers or fellow workers should be a safe distance away, while a tool is in use.
- Many of these precautions can be found in the manufacturers' instructions; make sure these are available to employees.
- Have equipment inspected and perform maintenance on tools according to the guidelines provided.
- Remove and tag all damaged tools to read "Do Not Use."

This article would not be complete without reminding employers of the precautions found in "1926.301 - Hand tools." Hand tools used by electrical contractors, governed by this standard, include wire strippers, knives, screwdrivers, and more. Any tool without power, which is held in your hand to do a job, is considered a hand tool. They are the source of common injuries such as punctures, impact, and cuts.

Most of these injuries are caused by tool misuse or poor maintenance. They must be used only for the job for which they were designed. Like all power tools, hand tools require inspection. Knives, chisels, shears, or scissors that are dull are more dangerous than sharp tools. Rounded screwdrivers or chisels with mushroomed heads can slip, striking the user or fellow workers. Handles must fit tightly and be free of splinters or cracks. Broken or shattered handles can strike other workers or even the user when pressure is applied in a particular direction. Wrench jaws that are sprung or worn can cause slipping. Slips result in smashed or sliced knuckles.

Regardless of the tools used, steps must be taken to ensure they are in proper working order and the employees use them correctly. Employers must train employees and establish an inspection program for all tools. This program should assign responsibility to management as well as the employee. The employees can inspect tools on a daily basis. Supervisors can check tools periodically, weekly, or monthly. Any inferior-quality or damaged tools should be destroyed. Ensure that all new tools meet the appropriate standards. Do not allow employees to use their own tools unless the supervisor has approved them.

O'CONNOR is with Intec, a Waverly, Pa., company that produces safety manuals with training videos and software for contractors. Based in Alexandria, Va., he can be reached at (703) 628-4326, or by e-mail at joconnor@intecweb.com.