Limited On-the-Job Training Leaves Apprenticeship Programs to Pick Up Slack
Electrical construction is becoming safer overall, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics; however, dangerous situations lurk everywhere. Electrical apprentices and new electricians don’t bring much experience to jobs initially, partly a result of limited practice and a dearth of opportunities for on-the-job training. If apprentices and journeyworkers work with improperly rated instruments, mistakenly match equipment to the wrong voltage, follow shortcuts a seasoned electrician might take or fail to use their personal protective equipment (PPE), the consequences can be fatal.
Over the last 30 years, Wes Wheeler, director of safety at the National Electrical Contractors Association, has noticed an increasingly invincible mindset among younger generations of ECs. Less on-the-job training may be the cause, he said.
“Our generation had ECs who knew how to teach and could help solve problems in the field,” Wheeler explained. “But as jobs became faster paced, there seemed to be less time to provide on-the-job training for apprentices. And if apprentices aren’t taught how to teach, then it is much more difficult to train the next generation.”
John Drebinger, a motivational safety speaker for 30 years, agrees.
“One of the challenges is that most people feel they’re not going to get hurt,” he said. “‘It’s not going to happen to me’ is the universal human thought, on anything from disease to safety.”
Many observers see a willingness to learn among the new generation of electrical managers. Barry Moreland, safety director/apprentice and journey level instructor at NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Center in Portland, Ore., hosts a monthly safety manager meeting over lunch. These lunches “provide an open forum to share safety best practices, discuss OSHA and worker’s comp challenges, compare training methods and, probably most importantly, a means to network with each other to improve safety programs within each company,” he said. “This is a great resource for new contractors or safety managers to quickly get up to speed on safety.”
With less on-the-job training in recent years, apprenticeship programs, training centers and safety speakers are working to fill in the gaps. Promoting a culture of safety in the workplace requires commitment.
“Time spent on safety is not viewed as money-making,” Moreland said.
However, Drebinger said when companies are safer, they often have higher profits.
Safety training needs to provide a personal, relevant reason for why employees should be invested in safety, according to Drebinger, whose primary talk is called “Would You Watch Out For My Safety?”
“When you teach using stories, people remember them,” he said.
Drebinger lauds virtual training, if it allows people to make mistakes and adapt to their choices, because real-world situations can be ever-changing.“As artificial intelligence gets better, it will become a more viable way of learning,” he said. “I have a sneaking suspicion that VR will be a great way to keep people engaged because they’re actually having to do something.”
While VR may be the next frontier, Palmer Hickman, director of safety and code training and curriculum development at the Electrical Training Alliance, is not as sure.
“Everyone is hoping online training can be the next thing, but OSHA is still pretty stubborn and pushing back on that,” he said. “OSHA reaffirmed that online training can be a part of safety training, but it can’t be all of the training.”
Safety training depends on the type of work and size of electrical firms, specific job site adherence and other factors.
“Residential and light commercial markets tend to have little safety oversight, and training can suffer in those areas,” Moreland said.
Job sites that demand safety excellence tend to provide a good level of safety training for apprentices and journeyworkers.
On jobs with this level of safety adherence, “clients will find another EC to perform future work” if safety isn’t prioritized, Moreland said. But “less safety-heavy job sites, where electrical installation and production is prioritized, can lead to less safety training and supervision.”
“The Electrical Training Center definitely helps fill the gap in those situations—even if it means just providing a forum for apprentices to ask about safety concerns they have at work,” he said. “We can mentor them on the right approach to the situation and, when necessary, contact the EC safety manager directly. We help new contractors get up to speed on OSHA compliance by providing a generic safety manual, company-specific safety training, weekly toolbox topics, free
PPE specific to energized electrical work, as well as education on how safety pays.”
Portland’s Electrical Training Center provides safety support and consultations for NECA contractors. It established an 80-hour bootcamp for new apprentice where they receive training in first aid, CPR and automated external defibrillator use as well as hands-on experience with mobile elevated work platforms, such as scissor lifts and boom lifts, in both rough terrain and warehouse conditions. Courses include the OSHA Outreach Training Program’s 10-hour course, an introduction to electrical safety concepts from NFPA 70E, hands-on meter use and lockout/tagout procedures. In the final year, apprentices complete the OSHA 30-hour course.
Certain techniques are taught to keep ECs safe as they perform their work, such as one-handed testing (so as not to inadvertently complete a circuit) and using all five senses to assess situations. For example, ECs should notice whether a light is illuminated, knowing that means it is energized, a transformer is energized by hearing it hum and that there is excessive current flowing if a conduit is warm.
“You have the ability to use all of your senses to make a determination,” Wheeler said. “We’ve put our life in the hands of sensors that are fallible. We used to teach people to look behind your car before you back up; now I’ve got sensors and backup cameras. Sometimes, getting back to the basics is the key to success.”
There are already positive results from apprenticeship and training programs.
“We’re now seeing that sometimes apprentices recognize and point out to the seasoned journeymen when they’re doing something the wrong way or taking shortcuts,” Wheeler said. “Hopefully, it will progressively get safer as the years go by.”
Drebinger discourages experienced workers from using shortcuts.
“One of the main reasons is that they don’t want to teach someone else, a newer employee, how to get hurt,” he said. “Younger men and women are going to look at what the more experienced workers do and copy them, not do what the manual says. They need to do things the right, safest way because new workers don’t have the experience of messing up and learning from it to protect themselves.”
Many safety managers say a standardized national policy on EC safety is lacking. Federal and state OSHA plans provide regulations, but they are performance-based and often lack compliance details.
“OSHA standards lag industry best practices due to their original adoption date and whether revisions have taken place,” Moreland said.
Brian Damant, NECA Central Ohio chapter manager, was instrumental in partnering with OSHA to adopt NFPA 70E in 2002.
“We were the first labor-management partnership with OSHA,” he said. “We’ve developed a collaborative rather than confrontational relationship with OSHA. 70E is an education for the customer, too.”
But safety is a continuous process.
“You have to stay vigilant,” Damant said, who is retiring after 42 years of service. “We have regular OSHA and 70E trainings. It’s a mosaic, different communities do things differently. There should be consistency, that would be the
In 2004, the Electrical Transmission and Distribution Partnership (ET&D) was formed as a collaboration between industry stakeholders and OSHA to improve safety for electric line construction workers. ET&D has developed best practices that many unions and contractors follow voluntarily.
Currently, the partnership covers 80% of workers in the line-construction industry, according to NECA and the National Electrical Installation Standards. A next step, Hickman said, would be to have inside wiremen adopt ET&D’s best practices. Another possible framework for national safety standards could be NFPA 70E, the National Fire Protection Association’s “Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace.”
A standardized policy would be helpful to ensure safety, Hickman said. Many managers and unions encourage or require their workers to take OSHA-10 and OSHA-30 safety courses. While these are important for entry-level worker awareness training, Hickman said this is not their purpose.
“The response to job deaths should not be requiring people to do the OSHA-10,” he said. “Supervisors who complete the OSHA-30 are considered the most competent, highest level people on the job, but that’s not what it was designed for.”
“Any time you get more safety training, I’m supportive of it. But OSHA reinforced the fact that this is awareness training and doesn’t meet any OSHA requirements,” Hickman said.
Moreland is skeptical of a standard national safety policy.
“I believe it would be hard to apply uniformly to all the various hazards ECs face, depending on the type of work they specialize in and the ever-changing work environment,” he said. “Contractors may use different approaches. A standard national policy may not allow for that type of flexibility for safety protocols, from one employer to another.”
Working with new hires and seasoned workers alike is necessary so everyone on a job site knows how to keep themselves, and each other, safe.