Electrical Safety Training: What Could Go Wrong?

Performing electrical work without being properly trained can be deadly. I have seen this hold true during numerous investigations.

Many companies are proactive and make sure their employees are trained and receive refresher courses at least every three years. Some use even shorter intervals for refresher training or updates. However, for others, training is either far down on the priority list or not very thorough. Some simply want to check training off their to-do lists without much regard for content. In the end, does it matter?

Obviously, it matters a lot. A life may literally depend on it.

From my own experience as an expert witness, here is one way lack of training plays out. The story often begins the same way: an attorney inquires if I am interested in being involved in investigating an electrical incident where someone was injured or killed.

OSHA encourages the use of the term “incident” instead of “accident” because “accident” implies the event was unavoidable. Most of the time, an injury or death is entirely avoidable and is the result of a breakdown somewhere.

Whether the incident involves an arc flash or electrocution, the details are usually quite graphic. Emotion must be kept out of the investigation. The initial meeting is typically at a law office where the team is assembled to discuss the details leading up to the incident. During this meeting, participants listen to descriptions of the injury, view photos and attempt to piece together what happened.

After presentations have been made by everyone, I usually begin by asking a simple question: Was the person qualified to perform the work?

Many times the answer is something like, “Yes. This was the most senior person at the company, and they had years of experience.” At this point, I often have to respond with, “That is not what I meant. Let’s take a look at the NFPA 70E definition of a qualified person.”

According to the 2015 edition of NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, the definition of a qualified person is “one who has demonstrated skills and knowledge related to the construction and operation of electrical equipment and installations and has received safety training to identify and avoid the hazards involved.”

The last part is a very important component of this definition. NFPA 70E 110.2 provides the requirements for training employees exposed to electrical hazards when the hazard risk is not reduced to a safe level.

More than just showing up

Just because a person attended a training program does not necessarily mean he or she paid attention. One such case of mine involved a person severely injured in an arc flash. Although he survived, he had third-degree burns over his arms and chest and lost several fingers. During the discovery process, it was revealed he attended an electrical safety training program. It was documented and included a course attendance form with his signature.

However, it was puzzling because the victim had performed so many steps regarding electrical safety incorrectly or omitted them entirely during the events leading up to the arc flash. Something did not add up. 

Later, the injured party went through the deposition process, which requires answering questions under oath. He stated that he had attended the training, but, during follow-up questioning, he admitted he was in the back of the class, with sunglasses on, sleeping.

Having been involved with electrical training for more than 30 years, it is often easy to tell which students are engaged and which are not. The energy of a class ebbs and flows and the ability to judge this enables a trainer to adjust the delivery accordingly to maintain students’ interest. It is important to engage the class with examples, stories, video and hands-on exercises.

Trust but verify

The phrase “trust but verify” holds true for electrical safety training. Instructors can verify what students learned by holding a quiz at the end of an electrical safety training program. Announcing the quiz at the beginning of class helps to motivate participants and keep them engaged.

A good electrical safety training program is an investment of time and money. However, if a severe injury or death occurs due to lack of training, the required time and financial investment after the incident will be even greater. The toll it takes on family and friends left behind makes it worse.

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