Some time ago, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger made an astonishing discovery. “Incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent,” they concluded. It may not be astounding news today, as we often hear, “people don’t know what they don’t know,” but I have never attributed that statement to incompetent people.

In most cases, when we hire new employees, we make certain assumptions about their abilities and what they know. For example, if you hire journeyman technicians, you expect they know more than just the basics of electrical and fire alarm systems work, and you would probably consider them capable of managing an electrical or fire alarm project.

But what do they really know? Are they aware of all of the safety hazards they can encounter? Will their actions risk the safety of others?

Do you teach safety on a regular basis? Some organizations have a mandatory video that new employees must watch before they can begin working on a job site. Though helpful, watching a video should not be the only exposure to safety practices that an employee receives when signing on to work with you.

Safety is a full-time job, and although training new hires is important, you should reinforce your commitment to safety every day. Regardless of the number of employees you have, each has a set of skills and a different attitude toward safety while working on a project.

Your job is to ensure that complacency or arrogance about safety does not creep into your work force. Keep in mind that safety is really about attitude. The makers of the Titanic believed their ship was unsinkable. They were arrogant enough that they didn’t plan how the ship’s officers would get accurate information on any possible hazards they might encounter. The ship’s lookouts did not even have binoculars. We all know how that story ended.

Of course, every work site has many and varied hazards on any project. The key to work force safety rests in awareness of the importance of safety. Encourage them to begin each day aware of their surroundings and to work safely regardless of the hazards present.

One way to “teach” safety to your employees involves making them aware of, encouraging them to read and insisting they follow the requirements in NFPA 70E 2012, the Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. This standard addresses “electrical safety related work practices for employee workplaces that are necessary for the practical safeguarding of employees relative to the hazards associated with electrical energy during activities such as the installation, inspection, operation, maintenance, and demolition of electric conductors, electric equipment, signaling and communications conductors and equipment, and raceways.”

It also includes “safe work practices for employees performing other work activities that can expose them to electrical hazards as well as safe work practices for the following:

“(1) Installation of conductors and equipment that connect to the supply of electricity
“(2) Installations used by the electric utility, such as office buildings, warehouses, garages, machine shops, and recreational buildings that are not an integral part of a generating plant, substation, or control center.”

Although I am writing about personal safety on the job, don’t forget fire alarm and detection systems. When you and your team work in an existing building, you have specific workplace hazards with which you must deal, but the mitigation of a much bigger hazard to your team and the building occupants rests on the ability of the fire alarm system to operate unimpaired.

You may often receive a request to test or upgrade a fire alarm system. I am sure you would welcome that business. However, just as important as the safety of your workers, the safety of the occupants now becomes your responsibility when working on a fire alarm system in an existing building. NFPA 72 2010 has specific requirements regarding impairments and the actions you must take while the fire alarm system remains impaired.

First, you must inform the owner of any impairment to a fire alarm system, including all out-of--service events. In some cases, you will need to provide mitigating measures, such as establishing a fire watch during the shutdown. Of course, you must notify the owner when you have restored the system and cleared the impairment. See Section 10.19 of NFPA 72 2010 for more on this.

Whenever possible, ensure the existing fire alarm system remains operational during a system replacement. However, if you can’t keep the system in service, you must consult with the owner and the authority having jurisdiction to determine what, if any, mitigation measures you should take. And when you provide fire alarm system inspection, testing and maintenance, you should know and follow the additional requirements found in Chapter 14 of the code.

Safety does not just apply to workplace safety. It applies to everyone in the building whom your work may affect. Stay safe, and understand your obligations.


MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office. He can be reached at wmoore@haifire.com.