It is easy to forget just how dangerous electicity can be. Given the correct conditions, it can kill. Or it can deliver a painful shock, damage sensitive equipment and ignite combustible materials. The National Safety Council estimates 600 people die every year of electrical causes. Most of these accidents involve low-voltage power (600 volts or less). So the voltage needed to kill doesn’t have to be the high voltage carried in overhead power lines. In addition to fatalities, 3,600 disabling electrical contact injuries occur every year in the United States, along with 4,000 nondisabling injuries.
The best way to avoid becoming one of these statistics is to avoid energized circuits when possible. Unfortunately, in construction, this is not always an option available to employees. An alternative method to keeping employees safe around electricity is to have them STOP:
Stop—Before employees take any action on any electrical system they should take a moment and ...
Think—Employees should be trained to think about what risks and hazards are present in each job site.
Options—Employees need to compile a list of options available to them, such as an individual control or simple or complex lockout/tagout. Then determine which is the most practical, safest choice for themselves and those working around them.
Protection—Once the work plan has been determined, it is important to also include the personal protective equipment needed to increase the level of safety for the employees.
Unfortunately, asking employees to STOP doesn’t ensure they will or guarantee that everyone working with electricity will be unharmed. To increase the likelihood of someone surviving an electrical accident, all personnel working near or on energized parts should be trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). These individuals must be identified and available when there is work being done on or near energized parts. If all personnel are not trained and if the only individual(s) trained in CPR are the ones involved in the electrical accident, there may be no one trained left to administer CPR.
After calling 911, the first step for anyone responding to an electrical accident is to turn off the electrical power to where the accident occurred. If another employee touches the victim with the power still connected, this person also will be shocked. However, sometimes equipment cannot be quickly de-energized or others’ survival relies on electricity, which prevents the circuit’s immediate shutdown.
If so, the injured person should be pulled free from contact with the energized equipment. To be safe, protect the rescuing employee with dry insulating material, such as paper, or use a dry board, belt or other available nonconductive material to free the victim from the electrical contact. Never touch the victim until the source of electricity has been removed.
While waiting for emergency services, much can be done to help the victim. Commonly with an electrical accident, the victim goes into shock. Keep the victim lying down and maintain the body’s normal temperature by covering him or her with blankets or coats. Do not move the victim unless absolutely necessary. If you must move him or her, do so as little as possible, especially if you suspect head and neck injuries could have occurred. Do not give a victim you suspect to be in shock anything to eat or drink until the emergency personnel arrives and determines if the victim is, in fact, in shock.
When treating the burn area, do not remove burned clothing, as this could further damage the underlying burned tissue and make healing more difficult. Elevating a burned limb above the victim’s heart will help return fluids to the circulatory system and prevent body fluids from pooling in the damaged tissue (edema). Remember to handle a burn victim with care and to minimize the amount of movement of him or her; someone should remain with the victim until the emergency personnel arrive.
It helps emergency personnel if the points of contact, formally referred to as entry and exit wounds, can be located. The entry wound will be found somewhere on the body that came in contact with the electrical source. A burn is present at the site due to the high temperature at the surface. The heat can evaporate the water on skin leading to a sunken or hollowed area. The exit wound is where the current comes to the skin’s surface. It can be a small hole or large abnormal area, depending on the size of the current and tissue resistance. The wound may look small, but remember the damage is from the inside out and is, therefore, very deep.
Of course, always check for signs of breathing and a pulse in a victim first. If neither is found, trained personnel should immediately begin CPR and/or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
It must be stressed that the best way to handle an electrical accident is to prevent it from happening in the first place. When training your employees on electrical work, remind them to always STOP before working on an energized circuit.
KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe O’Connor edited this article.