Electrical contractors and electricians have shared responsibilities regarding safety in the work environment. The contractors are typically the employers that engage the services of the electrical workers. Employers and employees both have multiple responsibilities related to providing safe workplaces and carrying out safe work practices. This article examines a set of basic electrical safety principles that apply to any given workplace, specifically that of the electrical worker.
Safety is a mindset that is established early in one’s career. Usually work habits or practices (good or bad) develop as one learns the trade. The saying, “old habits die hard,” is true for many. Unfortunately, bad habits and unsafe practices are still being inherited in the work force. Those who are properly trained in safety-related work practices understand the difference and what it takes to learn the work and how to safely perform it. At the end of the day, everyone wants to return home in the same condition in which they arrived for work.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers an industry a significant risk if one fatality occurs for every 1,000 employees in a 45-year time frame, which is the case for the electrical industry. Current trends and statistics indicate that electrical workers are killed or injured while working in the electrical field at a rate that continues to exceed this statistic. These numbers are too high. They can and must be reduced. With effective communication and safety education, this objective is attainable.
Who is more responsible for safety in the workplace: workers or employers? The answer is that it is a shared responsibility without indicating who has the more important role. In fact, OSHA places the compliance requirement on both the employer and employee. Each has responsibilities and obligations to ensure that safety in the workplace is achieved and maintained. If either neglects the responsibilities within their control, the safety system is compromised, increasing risks for both employees and employers. Even though this article is most specific to electrical safety-related work practices, there are many hazards to which workers can be exposed, such as falls from scissors lifts, other scaffolds or other elevated positions and trench collapse. There also are permits required for confined space entry and other rules that require different levels of training, including ensuring employees are competent and qualified for each hazard.
Basic electrical safety principles
The following principles serve as minimum guidelines in achieving electrical safety in the workplace. It should be understood that this list is not inclusive, but it covers the majority of considerations and actions necessary for worker safety. These are some slightly expanded versions of some of the basic safety principles provided in Annex E of NFPA 70E, the Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace.
1. Inspect and evaluate the equipment or workplace. This principle requires normal observation to assess all characteristics of the equipment and work environment to determine which safety-related work practices apply. Often, equipment is in poor condition, which can result in additional safety precautions that must be considered and applied for employee protection. One question that should be addressed right away is “Can the equipment or system be de-energized?” The first choice should always be to remove shock and other electrical hazards by removing the energy. Create a “zero-energy” work environment whenever it is achievable.
2. Maintain the equipment insulation and enclosure integrity. Insulation is a key factor in reducing shock hazards. Maintaining enclosure integrity is an essential step in containing an abnormal event, such as a short circuit or ground-fault condition, should one develop during the course of a procedure or work task. Enclosure integrity is important in containing an abnormal event should an accident occur. Open enclosures and removed covers from equipment compromise the integrity of the enclosure and its insulating/isolating value.
3. Plan every job. There is no substitute for proper, effective planning. Planning should include understanding the task that must be performed and the tools and procedures necessary to complete the task safely. Planning should also include anticipation of a failure. A backup plan is important. Part of any planning process has to include a determination of performing the work in the de-energized mode. This should always be the first choice. Without question, it is the safest way to perform the work, as indicated in the first principle above.
4. Anticipate unexpected events. This means the plan should include expectation of something going wrong. If this step is applied effectively, possible causes of failures or events that could alter the method of accomplishing the task could be thought out beforehand. An example of an unexpected event is weather, such as rain on an outdoor job site. You need to consider how wet conditions would affect the work.
5. Identify and minimize the hazards. It is important to assess the project and identify all possible hazards. It is understood that one may not be able to think of every thing that may go wrong, but if this step is taken, many unexpected hazards could be avoided.
6. Protect employees from shocks, burns and blasts. This principle involves creating an electrically safe working condition. The simple way to abide by this principle is to strive to work on equipment and systems that are de-energized. De-energizing equipment is one step in establishing an electrically safe working condition. This principle involves shutting the equipment off, locking the source switch in the open position, and verifying the absence of voltage. Sometimes applying protective grounding equipment is also necessary for additional safety.
7. Use the right tools for the job. Suitable tools are available for each task. It is important that the appropriate tools be used for the job. Accidents have been caused by using tools that are not appropriate for the job. If energized work is necessary, suitable insulated tools should be selected, and employees must be familiar with their proper use. Job briefings work well to assist employers and employees in understand the safety procedures and work methods to complete various work assignments, especially those that must be performed while equipment is energized.
8. Assess people’s abilities. Everyone’s qualifications vary to some degree. Employers have responsibilities to ensure that workers are trained to perform tasks under their purview. Maintaining training records and ensuring that work assignments are within the abilities and qualifications of employees are an important role in maintaining safety in the workplace. Contractors understand the importance of managing projects and work assignments with safety in mind.
9. Audit these safety principles. Part of being the best in the business includes continuous monitoring of business operations, including the safety components of such businesses. When there are injuries or incidents, they should not only be reported as required, but an audit should be conducted, even if it is an internal audit, to assess what went wrong and if there is an opportunity for improvement to keep this from happening again. In many cases, there will be identified areas that can be improved to reduce the possibilities of recurring incidents that cause injuries or death.
Establishing safety policies
Employers are responsible for providing safety programs that include safety-related work practices and policies that guide its employees to effectively implement these practices on job sites. The employee has the responsibility of learning the safety-related work practices and policies of the employer and implementing them in daily operations on the job. Achieving overall electrical safety is an important responsibility shared by the employer and the employee. Both need to contribute to obtain desired results. It is very common these days for safety records and contractor safety programs to be considered in the project-awarding process, which is another important reason to establish and maintain current and effective safety programs and records.
The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) has developed a standing policy on safety titled “Safety Programs and Safe Workers.” It contains basic safety principles and philosophies. The association’s position on safety programs is that safe workers are to strive for work on equipment and systems that are de-energized, where achievable. Another key component of this policy emphasizes the importance of training workers in safe work practices and planning. In order for a safety program to be effective, there has to be agreement and implementation of the essential safety principles outlined in the safety program. If everyone involved does not buy into these concepts, the safety program can fail. NECA has developed a new electrical contractor safety program that provides core safety policies and plans that can be customized to suit each contractor’s specific needs. For more about the new electrical contractor safety program, visit www.necanet.org/publications.
Specific employer responsibilities
Each employer is required to furnish each employee a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his or her employees. Each employer is required to comply with applicable occupational safety and health standards. Essentially, the employer must address all hazards to which the employee may be exposed during the course of performing his or her job. Contractors (employers) typically have a comprehensive safety program that includes all safety rules and procedures that employees must follow. It is the employer’s responsibility to implement all safety rules and regulations that affect employees in their assigned workplace. Employers are also obligated to comply with any federal, state and local safety standards and laws that apply to the employees or the general public. Employers are responsible for maintaining compliance in the workplace and ensuring that the employees are properly trained and qualified to perform their assigned tasks in a safe fashion. The employer is also responsible for ensuring that the employees have the knowledge and understanding of all applicable safety rules that apply to the work they perform.
An important aspect of maintaining an effective contractor safety program is to conduct periodic assessments of how the safety program is working. Fully investigating accidents and taking corrective actions to prevent reoccurrence of such accidents is one step in maintaining an effective and current contractor safety program.
Specific employee responsibilities
Each employee is responsible for compliance with occupational safety and health standards and all rules and regulations that are applicable to his or her actions and conduct. Employees are responsible to know and understand all safety rules that apply to the job being performed, the workload or other circumstances. If unsure, one should ask to find out. Employees must strive to ensure the safety and protection of themselves, other workers, the public, the company, and public or private property. The following is a set of general safety rules that should be included in an overall safety program.
• Employees working in the electrical industry must be trained to a minimum level so that they understand safety-related work practices, safety procedures and other safety rules pertaining to their job, including emergency procedures related to their work.
• Qualified people must be trained and proficient in the skills necessary to distinguish exposed live parts from other parts of electrical equipment.
• Qualified people also have the skills necessary to determine the nominal voltage of exposed live parts.
• In many cases, employees are in charge of their own safety on job sites. They continuously make decisions that determine their own safety in that work environment.
• There has to be a certain level of trust between the employer and employee that each is going to keep his or her end of the bargain when it comes to safety.
Why do we choose to work it hot? Why isn’t our first instinct to shut the power off? Why do workers choose to work in a trench that requires a trench shield, on a scaffold or other working surface without necessary guardrails, in a manhole without a tripod, or with a chemical without a material safety data sheet? The reasons are never justifiable; it’s not convenient or practical, and it costs too much. Planning resolves many of these issues that overlook vital steps to establishing and maintaining safe workplaces.
To protect electricians and other workers exposed to the hazards of electricity, OSHA established guidelines, which must be followed to protect against the damaging effects of electricity. In general, these are referred to as “electrical safety-related work practices.” These work practices were originally developed under direction from OSHA in NFPA 70E, the Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. In general, both NFPA 70E and OSHA 1910 Subpart S, Electrical Standards, require electrical circuits and equipment to be de-energized before work is performed on or near them. Note that “de-energized” is defined as being placed into an electrically safe working condition by locking out and tagging the circuit and equipment. Generally, work is not permitted to be performed on or near live parts unless the employer can demonstrate that de-energizing the circuit or equipment introduces additional or increased hazards or is infeasible due to equipment design or operational limitations. Note that what constitutes “infeasibility” does not include considerations such as cost or inconvenience. Infeasibility is intended to apply to equipment operational limitations. For example, measuring voltage or taking current or voltage readings is not possible with the circuit or equipment de-energized and would require that the task be performed with the circuit in an energized condition. Too often, accidents occur when electricians fail to de-energize or request that circuits be de-energized first. Typically, accident reports indicate that work was performed in an energized condition because it would have been “inconvenient” or would have cost too much to de-energize the circuit or equipment.
Electrically safe working condition
To work safely in any environment requires control of the hazards involved. This emphasizes that the first choice for workers is to always de-energize electrical circuits and equipment prior to working on them. Establishing an electrically safe working condition is addressed specifically in Article 120 of NFPA 70E. To achieve the goal of zero injuries in the workplace, employers and employees must work together to establish a zero-energy work environment whenever achievable.
There are not too many circumstances that warrant working on energized circuits or equipment. Inconvenience is not an excuse to work on energized systems or equipment. However, there are some aspects of electrical work that necessitate working on systems that are energized. When working de-energized is infeasible or introduces increased or additional hazards, then other requirements apply, including following an energized work permit and properly protecting exposed employees with the appropriate personal protective equipment rated for the amount of incident energy involved.
A culture of safety has been established in the electrical field, but most people involved in this business agree that the current culture can be improved. This is a culture that has taken years to develop; it will take time to improve. More often than not, dangerous practices are the result of lack of training in working safely. Usually when a person has performed a certain task the same way for years, it becomes the right way in his or her mind, even though it may be completely wrong. It is interesting to watch a person defend the old habit or practice to justify his or her position. Once again, lack of training is usually the culprit. The only way to improve our culture is to continuously educate and communicate the safety message among employers and employees. Admitting there is room for improvement is a good start. Safety training and communicating safety policies and procedures is essential to effective safety programs implemented by electrical contractors. When employees experience management buy-in to safety practices and principles, a safer, more productive work environment is created. With both employer and employee on the same page, safety programs not only survive; they thrive. The safety culture we share in the electrical industry is strong but can always be improved. Many safety professionals understand the value of being progressive in implementing safe work practices and policies, while at the same time remaining competitive and continuing to provide quality services for customers.
May is National Electrical Safety Month. It is a good time to reflect on personal and organizational safety values and philosophies related to all hazards, not just electrical hazards. Safety in the workplace should be inherent to everyday operations, not only during May, but all year long. That’s where the value of safety programs will prove itself, through consistently implementing the best safety-related work practices in our daily operations. When employers and employees share the same views and approach to electrical workplace safety, everybody wins, and everyone gets to go home at the end of the day.
JOHNSTON is NECA’s executive director of standards and safety. He is former director of education, codes and standards for IAEI; a member of the IBEW; and an active member of the NFPA Electrical Section, Education Section and the UL Electrical Council. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.