Hidden In Plain Sight: Hazardous Energy in the Workplace

Published On
Mar 15, 2017

Electrical energy is the most common hazardous energy in the workplace. For electricians, linemen and wiremen, it likely is the most familiar. However, hazardous energy comes in many forms, including mechanical, chemical, nuclear, pneumatic, hydraulic and gravitational. Regardless of the type, hazardous energy needs to be understood and controlled.

Hazardous energy exists in two states: kinetic (acting) and potential (stored). For example, a rotating flywheel has kinetic mechanical energy, and a compressed, spring-loaded hinge has mechanical potential energy. When the kinetic energy is released, it may injure someone who is unaware of the danger or is in proximity to the hinge or objects moved by the hinge.

Mechanical energy is typically associated with an object’s motion and position. Mechanical stored energy can be found in winches, electrical systems, hydraulic systems and pneumatic devices. 

Chemical energy occurs as a result of a chemical reaction. These reactions may yield extreme temperatures, explosions or the emission of toxic or dangerous gases. 

Radiation or nuclear energy is derived from electromagnetic sources that may include light, lasers, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet or X-rays. This type of energy may have adverse impacts on health, ranging from potential eye damage to cancer.

Hydraulic energy occurs in pressurized liquid. It is often used in diesel engines and machinery. Hydraulic systems operate at high pressure that can puncture the skin like a needle. The fluid released in these types of incidents is very difficult for the body to get rid of and can poison the bloodstream. If the fluid is not quickly removed by a doctor, injury, disfigurement, amputation or death may occur.

Pneumatic energy occurs within pressurized air systems. An example of pneumatic energy is found in power washer or air compressor devices. Pressurized air can break the skin, as well. If an air bubble enters the bloodstream, it can cause a coma, paralysis or even death depending on its size, duration and location. Air pressure also can cause flying debris, dirt and dust particles. This can create hazardous projectiles and respiratory hazards.

The amount of gravitational energy is related to the weight of an object and its distance from the ground. As the object falls, it generates kinetic energy, which increases with its speed. Therefore, the more an object weighs and the higher its starting point, the greater the gravitational potential or stored energy. 

Being aware of the various forms of hazardous energy and performing lockout/tagout procedures similar to those followed when conducting electrical work can help create a safer workplace. Additionally, having a hazardous-energy control program can be helpful. 

These programs allow the use of energy and prevent unintended releases of stored energy. There are five key elements to a successful hazardous-energy control program: information gathering, task analysis, hazard and risk analysis, implementation of job controls, and training and education.

When establishing a ­hazardous-
energy control program, gathering information and identifying where energy hazards are located is the first step. This will provide critical information to help create proper procedures for using, servicing, maintaining, installing, removing and addressing any malfunctions with equipment, devices or other potential sources of hazardous energy. 

The second step in creating a successful hazardous-energy control program is task analysis. During this, it is important to evaluate machine processes and set-up, machinery programming, modes of operation, tool changeovers, voluntary, involuntary and emergency stops and starts, troubleshooting, and more.

After acquiring information from the first two steps, it is necessary to assess the threat and exposure level to workers. This analysis should identify hazards and the inherent risks associated with each. It should outline all scenarios in which an employee might be exposed to a particular hazard.

The next step to launching a well-constructed hazardous-energy control program includes the implementation of job controls that mitigate potential safety risks. The final step is establishing an education component. It is imperative to train staff on how the program works and to ensure they know what their roles, responsibilities and expectations are. 

Understanding the different forms of hazardous energy, along with having a hazardous-energy control program, can go a long way in preventing work place injuries and illnesses. Such programs also help create an overall safety-­conscious work environment, which is beneficial to employers and employees alike.

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.


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