Working around or on live electric circuits exposes electricians to serious risks, and few today would disagree that power should be deactivated before performing any type of work. Even so, electricians often must work in danger zones that put them in close proximity to energized lines or components. In such situations, insulated tools are one of several mandated protective measures.
OSHA 1910.335(a)(2)(i) states, 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. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 70E standard addresses safety when working around exposed, energized circuits, and complying with its provisions will result in compliance with OSHA regulations. Local codes also may be applicable. Note that references to safety in this report are for general information and should not be considered comprehensive safety guidelines.
Jeffery S. Russo, vice president, Cementex, cites 2018 NFPA 70E, which states a qualified electrical worker (QEW) must use insulated tools when working inside the restricted approach boundary (also defined as the shock protection boundary) where there is a realistic chance of the QEW or tools making accidental contact with an exposed, energized electrical conductor.
“The most significant change within this standard is the removal of the tables that were guidelines about required PPE [personal protective equipment],” Russo said. “This means workers need to do calculations to determine the appropriate personal PPE they will need to perform the specific task they need to accomplish. These calculations are extremely important for worker safety.”
To be classified as insulated by UL, each tool must be tested to 10,000 volts (V) to achieve a 1,000V rating—a 10-to-1 safety ratio. Other agencies, such as ASTM, VDE, ANSI/ASME and ISO, contribute to standards for design criteria but may not require 100 percent individual testing. ASTM and other standards apply to the manufacturing of insulated tools. Insulated tools are sold individually and in kits. Electricians frequently use pliers, screwdrivers and nut drivers, but a very broad selection of insulated tools is available.
Tools are insulated using various methods. The two most common are the injection molded and dipped processes.
“The injection-molded process allows for a layer of formed plastic over the base tool, usually a single color,” Russo said. “The dip process allows for the tool to be covered with a dielectric coating. This coating is usually a dual-layer covering.”
ASTM specifies that, if two or more layers are used, contrasting colors must be employed.
“Dual layer is not required, but if done, the layers need to be of contrasting colors; such as orange and yellow,” Russo said. “This is done so the worker can see if the tool has been compromised.”
Russo said insulated tools haven’t changed much in the last few years; what’s new is where they are being used: the green energy space, such as solar and wind power, and the electric vehicle market.
“The types of tools have not grown, but the style of tool has,” Russo said. “The selection of metric and custom-designed tools has increased.”
Jason Schaper, product manager, Ideal Industries, said most manufacturers’ insulated hand tools have moved away from dipped vinyl to injection-molded insulation.
“Dipping a tool in liquid vinyl is something of an art, and every tool drips the liquid off differently during the curing process,” he said. “That inconsistency is not always visible, but it results in thick and thin areas throughout the hardened resin. Injection molding is the technical, and repeatable, molding solution. Each mold is specifically engineered for the required thickness of resin. As a result, every molded part meets specification.”
Schaper cited dual-durometer injection molding as another advancement.
“Literally molding one layer of insulating material over another further enhances performance, providing a visual warning if the outer layer gets damaged,” he said.
Schaper said insulation is a function of the type, thickness, design and maintenance of the plastic insulation encapsulating each tool. Quality ranges from dipped vinyl to high-pressure, injection-molded, dual-durometer. ASTM standard 1505 specifies the design attributes and testing criteria for 1,000V-rated tools. Insulated tools always should be kept in a secure, protected location to preserve the integrity of the insulation from damage. They should never be tossed into the tool box.
“Insulated tools are precision instruments, made to protect the electrician’s life and the equipment,” Schaper said.
Ben Bird, sales associate, Certified Insulated Products, said employees must be trained in and familiar with the safety-related practices required by OSHA standard 1910-331 through 1910-335 that relate to their jobs using tools rated for maximum voltage of 1,000V AC and 1,500V DC and meet ASTM Standard F1505-16.
Bird said widely used insulated tools are ratchets, sockets, linesman pliers, needle-nose pliers, water pump pliers, slip-joint pliers, crimping pliers, inspection mirrors, cable cutters, ratcheting cable cutters, diagonal cutting pliers, adjustable wrenches, wire strippers, T-handle socket wrenches, offset screwdrivers, nut drivers, screwdrivers, holding screwdriver starters, holding nut starters, magnetic bit tip systems, male hexagon drivers, pipe wrenches, hexagon wrenches, T-handle hexagon wrenches, knives, geared wrenches, ratcheting wrenches, connector wrenches, torque wrenches, extension bars, and breaker bars.
“If an insulated tool is damaged, it must immediately be removed from service,” Bird said. “Moisture and surface contaminants are conductive.”
Peter Grable, product manager, Knipex Tools, said the most noticeable change in the insulated tool market is expanded breadth.
“Several years ago, it was common to find ‘standard’ insulated tools such as lineman’s pliers, some common screwdriver sizes and diagonal cutters,” he said. “Now, there is a wide range of insulated tools from wire strippers, needle nose pliers, metric and inch sockets as well as a variety of other insulated tool sets.”
Knipex uses two types of tool insulation processes. The most common method is the use of insulated-molded handles that are bonded to the handles of the tools. Molded insulated handles provide comfort as well as protecting the user from coming in contact with live wires.
The second method is a dipping process to achieve a layer of insulating material that meets or exceeds standards such as ASTM F1505. The dipping method is applied to tools such as nut drivers and open-ended wrenches where it is not feasible to affix a molded insulated handle.
Users must be cautious when purchasing insulated tools. Just because the tool has a plastic handle doesn’t mean it will protect you from electrical hazards. Look for the ASTM F1505 stamp on certified insulated tools.
Insulated tools can be damaged, and nicks or cuts in their insulation can cause them to lose their insulating properties. Proper care is essential. Damaged tools never should be used, and periodic testing can confirm a tool’s voltage rating still is good.
A New Way of Doing Things
Jameson LLC has introduced a line of insulated tools manufactured with proprietary molded insulation material and design very different from other insulated tools sold in the United States.
“These tools are the only insulated tools available with Nylon 11 injection-molded insulation,” said Mark Myrick, Jameson regional sales manager.
The tools are manufactured in the United Kingdom by Insulated Tools Limited (ITL) and marketed with the name Jameson/ITL.
“Engineered Nylon 11 is melted and then injected into a mold at very high temperatures and pressures applied directly onto each tool,” Myrick said. “This process bonds the material to the tool so that it will never slip off and provides incredible strength, durability and electrical insulating properties that is far superior to PVC push-on or dipped-grip handle styles.”
Nylon 11 is a much harder, longer wearing material compared to PVC. Another difference is Nylon 11 injected tools can withstand temperature extremes from 158ºF to minus 40ºF, and they meet stringent Category C requirements for cold-impact rating.”
Myrick said PVC or plastic push-on insulation is glued in place or the handles are dipped in PVC.
“There often is a two-layer composition to these tools with different color layers so that the users can easily see when the tool insulation is worn and needs to be replaced,” Myrick said. “Jameson/ITL tools do not need two-layer insulation because Nylon 11 is so durable it will never be worn through under normal use.”
ITL has been making insulated tools for more than 50 years and they are used worldwide.
Jameson/ITL insulated tools are sold through Jameson’s distribution partners and are available in numerous kits and sets with all tools needed by electricians.
Tool weight is similar to other insulated tools, and Jameson/ITL tools are priced competitively, Myrick said.