Like most professions, electrical construction requires attention to proper selection and care of tools. Tool safety for electrical work has many facets. The wrong tool or a tool in disrepair can lead to injury. In addition, certain tools used by electricians serve as a form of protective gear. Insulated tools are designed to separate the user from an industry hazard-electrical energy.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) holds the employer responsible for the condition of tools. Whether the employer provides the tools or not, citations for unsafe tools go to them.

Management needs to periodically inspect employee tools to ensure their condition. This applies to both hand tools and handheld portable powered tools.Hand tools include screwdrivers, hammers and other devices, which are not powered. Injuries usually occur because of their misuse or improper maintenance.

For example, while using a screwdriver as a chisel, one electrician drove it into his eye. There were two problems with this. A screwdriver should not have been used in place of the chisel and certainly not directed toward the employee. Other examples of unsafe actions include the use of tools with splintered handles, wrenches with sprung jaws and dull utility knives. Employees must be reminded to inspect and repair or replace tools as needed.

Another consideration for hand tools is their selection. Iron and steel hand tools cannot be used around flammable substances. Sparks, which are produced when iron or steel tools are used, are a source of ignition. Spark-resistant brass, plastic, aluminum or wood should be used.

A unique concern for hand tools in our industry is the need for insulation. While doing maintenance work, electricians are covered by the General Industry Standards. Paragraph 1910.335(a)(2)(i) of those standards requires employees working near exposed conductors or circuit parts to use insulated tools or handling equipment where contact may occur.

The revised National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace establishes a limited approach boundary for electrical work. Section 130.16(D)(1) Insulated Tools and Equipment, requires that insulated tools and/or handling equipment be used when working inside this boundary when there could be accidental contact.

The insulated hand tools should conform to the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) F 1505 standard, which sets minimum safety specifications for insulated and insulating hand tools. Along with these standards come other safety-enhancing features.

For example, manufacturers have developed finger guards on pliers to prevent a worker's hand from slipping onto or in the way of exposed electric wire. Another characteristic is the use of the internationally recognized orange layer of insulation over a yellow layer of insulation. When a nick or cut occurs in the outer layer, it is easier to spot with this feature.

The hazards associated with handheld power tools are related to their power source, be it electric, pneumatic, liquid fuel, hydraulic and powder-actuated.

There are a few general precautions that apply to all, however. Cords or hoses must be protected. Never carry a tool by the cord or pull on it to disconnect the tool. Disconnect a tool from its power source to repair it or change an accessory. Faulty equipment must be tagged and removed from service. When operating the tool, use both hands. Clamps or other devices can secure the work in place. Do not wear loose clothing or jewelry.

All hazardous moving parts of a power tool need to be guarded. This includes the power-transmission apparatus such as belts, gears, flywheels, etc. The guards help protect the user from the motion as well as flying chips and particles from the material being worked on.

OSHA standards are very specific about the types of guards and should be consulted. Although manufacturers generally equip their tools with the proper guards, employees may try to remove them. I have also observed equipment in other industries sold without guards. All tools should be checked for proper guarding.

The same is true about safety switches. Tools typically come with the appropriate switch, but employees may modify the device and operate it in violation of OSHA standards.

Tools need to be checked for the following types of safety switches. A momentary contact on/off control switch is needed on drills, tappers, fastener drivers and grinders with wheels larger than 2 inches in diameter; disc and belt sanders; reciprocating saws; and saber saws.

A lock-on control that allows turnoff by a single motion of the same finger(s) that turn it on is also allowed for this equipment. Platen sanders, disc sanders with discs 2 inches or less in diameter, grinders with wheels 2 inches or less in diameter, routers, nibblers, shears, scroll saws and jigsaws with blade shanks an inch wide may be equipped with only a positive on/off control switch.

Circular saws having a blade diameter greater than 2 inches, chain saws and percussion tools must have a constant-pressure switch. This ensures the tool will shut down as the pressure is released if a mishap occurs.

The two most common sources of power for handheld power tools in the electrical construction industry are electrical and air pressure. All electrical handheld power tools must be grounded, double insulated or powered by a low-voltage isolation transformer. Electric tools should not be used in damp or wet locations.

A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is required for all construction work. The danger is getting hit by one of the tool's attachments, some kind of fastener used with the tool, or particles blown by escaping air. A safety-locking device, such as wire, must be used to safeguard the release of the hose from the tool. A safety clip must be in place to keep the accessory from being shot from the barrel.

Other specialty tools have hazards related to their design. They include powder-actuated tools, jacks, hydraulic tools and abrasive wheels. Powder-actuated tools operate like a loaded gun. Special training is needed before they can be used. Consult the manufacturer for training.

Hydraulic power tools must be filled with an approved fire-resistant fluid and must retain its operating characteristics at the temperatures it may be exposed. Consult the manufacturer for safe operating pressures and temperatures for the equipment you own.

All jacks must have a device that prevents them from lifting beyond their working distance. The manufacturer's load limit must be marked on the jack. Jacks should not be used to sustain a load. The load must be blocked in place.

With abrasive wheels, the hazard is the release of particles or the wheel parts, should it explode. The wheel must be ring tested and all manufacturer's specifications for operation, such as speed, must be observed.

Regardless of what tool is used, there are a few basic rules. Match the tool to the job. Inspect the tool before each use. Follow the manufacturer's instructions. Always wear the appropriate personal protective equipment, safety goggles and gloves based on the hazards present. Keep work areas clear of debris and as dry as possible to prevent slips with or around tools. And, finally, perform regular maintenance on the tool to keep it in good repair. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@intecweb.com.