The tools electricians use every day pose the risk of injury-ranging from banging a thumb with a hammer to serious accidents with power tools. And when projects require working near live conductors or circuit parts, using the wrong tool or making a simple mistake can have fatal results.

Proper tool use is only one facet of job-site safety, but it is extremely important.

Credit tool designers and manufacturers with improving safety guards, grips and controls, making tools easier and safer to use. Designs continually evolve-tools get lighter and better balanced-and safety features are one of the most important considerations.

Of course, tool features alone cannot prevent injury. A tool is only as safe as the person using it.

Safety-including proper tool use-begins with training, and every International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) electrician is afforded a full complement of safety training in programs from the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) through the IBEW and National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) partnership.

“Electrical workers use tools on a daily basis,” said Michael I. Callanan, executive director of NJATC. “Despite the fact that tools are an integral part of the job duties of an electrical worker, the hazards associated with their use is often taken for granted. Frequently these hazards arise from using the wrong tool for the job or failing to take proper safety precautions before using the tool. One of the greatest hazards posed by hand and power tools results from misuse and improper maintenance.”

Knowledge and experience can contribute to a false sense of security, which could result in carelessness and could lead to accidents.

“Just because you are a professional does not mean you can forfeit safety precautions,” said Peter Domeny, director of safety for Bosch Power Tools and Accessories. “When operating any power tool, there are safety considerations to remember.”

The starting point for correct and safe operation of any tool is its operator manual, which contains not only operating instructions but also safety warnings that apply to the tool.

General safety guidelines apply to all power tools.

“Examine the tool before plugging it in,” said Domeny. “Make sure guards operate smoothly and quickly, switches function properly. Select the right accessory for the job, and make sure accessories are tightened in place. Always use the right accessory for the job, and make sure drill bits and saw blades are not worn or damaged.”

Power cords should be in good condition, without frays or exposed wires and free of kinks. During operation, side-assist handles help control powerful tools.

Wear safety protection appropriate to the tool, including safety-approved eye and hearing protection. Do not wear loose clothing or jewelry that could be caught in a tool's moving parts.

Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) offer protection against electrical shock. But information published by the Milwaukee Electric Tool Co. points out that circuit breakers are designed to protect circuit wiring and do not afford protection to power tool users. Severe injuries and even death can be caused by levels below one amp.

“GFCIs,” according to the Milwaukee document, “are designed to keep people safe from dangerous levels of current. A GFCI will open the circuit if the amount of current going out is different from the amount of current coming back by 5/1,000th of an amp.”

Manual hand tools are not perceived to be as dangerous as power tools, but they also must be properly and safely used to reduce the risk of injury. Manufacturers also stress it is important to use professional-quality tools.

“Hand tools are extensions of our hands,” said Klein Tools' Richard Young. “When we misuse our hands, we experience pain. When we misuse hand tools, the possibility of injury to ourselves or people working around us increases considerably. Misuse also can damage the tool or cause it to fail.”

Selecting the correct tool for a job is the first step to safe hand tool use.

“Tools are designed for specific needs,” Young said. “Using any tool inappropriately is a step in the wrong direction. A screwdriver is not a chisel or pry bar. Use tools only for their intended purpose. To avoid personal injury and tool damage, select the proper tool to do the job well and safely.”

The most critical element of hand tool safety is using insulated tools when it is necessary to work near live circuits.

Hand tools are often used in combination with lockout tag systems to ensure that the circuits are not live, said Young. But many jobs must be done in circumstances where circuits cannot be shut down and OSHA requires the use of insulated tools or handling equipment if the tools or handling equipment might make contact with such conductors or parts.

“Note that tools with plastic-dipped or slip-on plastic handles are not insulated-those features are for comfort only. Likewise, wrapping a tool with electric tape does not provide insulation,” said Young.

“Insulated hand tools must be clearly marked with the official, international 1,000V rating symbol. They also must meet IEC 60900 and ASTM F1505 standards. Every insulated tool is tested at 10,000V to receive a 1,000V rating. These tools are designed to reduce the chance of injury if the tool should make contact with an energized source.”

Insulated tools must be inspected frequently.

“Watch for any wear or cracking of the insulation,” Young said. “If the dielectric insulation has been breached by cutting, wear or a burn, the tool should be taken out of service. Keep tools clean, dry, and free of surface contaminants, which can compromise their insulating properties.”

Keeping tools in good condition is an important aspect of workplace safety, and in addition to the standard requiring the use of insulated tools, there are other OSHA requirements relating to the use and care of tools.

As a reminder, the NJATC draws attention to OSHA construction and general industry requirements that relate to the care and use of tools:

°1926.301(a) Employers shall not issue or permit the use of unsafe hand tools.

°1910.242(a) General requirements. Each employer shall be responsible for the safe condition of tools and equipment used by employees, including tools and equipment, which may be furnished by employees.

°1926.300(a) Condition of tools. All hand and power tools and similar equipment, whether furnished by the employer or the employee, shall be maintained in a safe condition.

°1926.300(c) Personal protective equipment. Employees using hand and power tools and exposed to the hazard of falling, flying, abrasive, and splashing objects, or exposed to harmful dusts, fumes, mists, vapors, or gases shall be provided with the particular personal protective equipment necessary to protect them from the hazard.

°1910.335(a)(2)(i) When working near exposed energized conductors or circuit parts, each employee shall use insulated tools or handling equipment if the tools or handling equipment might make contact with such conductors or parts. If the insulating capability of insulated tools or handling equipment is subject to damage, the insulating material shall be protected. EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.