When I chose a career in the electrical safety space, I never dreamed that it would lead me down the many roads it has. I have gone from instructing apprentices to working for NFPA, and now in my current position, I teach the world to be safe.
It all started, however, with the simple act of taking an opportunity when it presented itself. When I was offered the chance to travel to a small South American country to teach an electrical class, I jumped with the same enthusiasm that found me packing my bags to move halfway across the country to go work for NFPA. Even though I knew it would be a great experience, I had almost no idea about what to expect. After all, I didn’t know where exactly Suriname was.
I first traveled to Suriname in 2019. I was working for NFPA, and I was given the opportunity to teach a class on NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code, for electrical workers in the mining industry. That was one heck of a learning experience. The high points were eating some amazing food with new friends and meeting incredible people who truly cared about keeping folks safe from electricity. (The wonderful food only came after a late-night trip to the emergency room when I tried to find a meal on my own.) But I managed to make it home safe and sound and was looking forward to heading back to cover NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace.
Then the world was suddenly thrust into the grips of a global pandemic. Suriname became the setting for a cool story about the time I had to go to the emergency room in South America. I did not know when I would be able to return for the important work.
Thankfully, Suriname was not done with me. Shortly after joining e-Hazard, I was asked if I would be able to build a custom program for a power plant customer in a foreign country. I jumped on it, and it turns out the country happened to be Suriname. With travel restrictions still in place, we delivered the first round of the custom program through WebEx. However, video conferences are not the equivalent of in-person instruction, and there were more people to train.
Electrical safety outside the United States
In March 2023, I boarded a plane from Boston to Paramaribo for two full weeks of training on electrical safety for the folks who operate and maintain the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity throughout the country. It was an incredible opportunity to see how another culture approaches electrical safety and to learn more about such an interesting place.
The first thing that I learned about Suriname was that much of the electrical infrastructure was left in place from the days of heavy mining as a former Dutch colony. Companies mining for bauxite and gold built facilities to generate electricity and distribute it throughout the interior. However, the equipment is aging and requires a dedicated, skilled workforce to ensure that reliable energy is delivered.
My first experience with the NEC was with workers in the mining industry, and everyone was relatively new to the subject matter. With electrical safety, I had no idea what to expect, but I was about to find out firsthand.
The agenda was simple. First, I would teach the full maintenance staff electrical safety for low-voltage and premises wiring systems for a few days. Then we would follow up with a class covering safety around high-voltage generation, transmission and distribution systems.
Once everyone had gone through the low- and high-voltage qualified person classes, a few students would complete the train-the-trainer program to deliver it on their own. They were truly invested in making sure that everything was being done to keep their employees safe.
The student body
But who were the students? Would I be in for teaching a group of folks that had never heard of NFPA 70E? Would I be teaching a group that was well-versed in the processes and procedures that ensure our safety at work? Also, being in a foreign country where English is not the primary language (and I don’t speak their native Dutch), would there be language barriers to learning? I soon had my answer.
The room quickly filled with engineers, electricians, maintenance and operations staff, and while I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, it was obvious that there was every bit of connection and camaraderie in this group as in any class I have taught in the past, and maybe even more so. My sixth sense started telling me that this class was going to be one of those moments in life you just don’t forget. The group was skilled and knowledgeable, with a real understanding of the best approach to working with electrical hazards.
A different perspective
Then I arrived at the part of the class where I ask the ever-important question, “Why are we here?” No, not in the existential meaning-of-life sense, but as in why we all are sitting in a classroom listening to some guy from Massachusetts talk about electrical safety.
As I explained how personal safety is a huge motivation for staying safe, but not always enough to keep us from cutting corners, I caught a hand go up. This electrician was struggling to figure out where I was coming from. His question was why did I need to present such a sales pitch for not getting hurt? It completely took me by surprise. Here they were all trying to figure out why I was explaining the need to shut the power off and that we shouldn’t be working energized without proper justification. Finally, the class asked, do people really work around energized equipment that much to necessitate this hard sell for shutting the power off?
I felt like I had stumbled on every electrical safety teacher’s dream group. Possibly for the first time in my career of teaching practical application of electrically safe work practices, I was teaching from a perspective that asks, “Why in the world would you want to work on energized equipment?”
No arguing about how you can’t just shut a plant down to replace a set of fuses. No trying to convince the class that the top priority is to establish an electrically safe work condition. They worked this way already. When I was going over Section 110.4 and explaining what conditions must be present for work to be performed energized, the question became, “But, does that mean we have to?”
What a refreshing thought. Just because we can find a way to justify working energized doesn’t mean we have to.
The rest of the class went off without a hitch. We thoroughly discussed boundaries and barricading. We spent a lot of time going over the complexity of risk assessment and how to best reduce the risk of injury to employees. And for the rare times where the risk assessment indicated that personal protective equipment was going to be required, basically for absence of voltage testing, troubleshooting and commissioning, we were able to spend ample time going through how this process works.
Meat, potatoes and cake
Of course, this safety-minded workforce wore daily uniforms that provided the majority of the arc flash protection that they needed, so the PPE conversation was fairly straightforward. It truly is amazing how, when little to no time needs to be spent on selling the class on shutting the power off, you can get into the “meat and potatoes” content much faster.
The icing on the cake was that I was able to spend two days going through train-the-trainer level classes. The students were engineering and safety professionals who had such a thirst for understanding how we communicate this message of electrical safety that it felt as though I was a simple tour guide on their journey toward becoming the next generation of electrical safety professionals in South America. All I had to do was point them in the correct direction and they would take care of the rest.
At the end of my time in Suriname, I felt that I was the one who had gone on a learning journey. I had discovered a new take on this industry through the eyes of my friends in this tiny South American nation. We shared stories and talked over lunch, and tried to plan a fishing excursion into the interior for peacock bass and wolf fish. I had found a slice of heaven on earth that just so happened to also be electrified and in need of safety training. The people, culture, food and beauty of the world’s most forested country made this electrician’s trip to a place that most have never heard of before one that will be hard to beat.