Turn It Off

How many times has an owner or a customer asked your company to work on energized equipment? How many times has an electrician chosen to not turn off a circuit because it was inconvenient? How many times have you heard, “Yes, we can work it hot, since our competition won’t do it?” The answers to these questions can have major consequences in terms of injury and plant operations.

The days of pleading ignorance about NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, have passed. Since its inception, this document has set out to provide the necessary guidance to work safely with electricity. The listed practices and precautions have proven effective in protecting individuals working with electricity and performing electrical tasks.

Why work hot?
When a customer asks contractors to work on energized equipment, do they really know the liability that goes along with their request? Have they answered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conditions of infeasibility, or does de-energizing create a greater hazard? Working on energized equipment is often justified by minimizing the impact on production and convenience. However, a scheduled 15- or 30-minute outage is less disruptive than an unscheduled one, which may cause injury or death, and also time replacing damaged equipment and dealing with subsequent litigation.

When an event occurs as a result of working energized, it changes the contractor-customer relationship. Investigations, root-cause analysis, hospitalization, litigation, fines or jail time all can occur.

Who asked the contractor to work  energized, and was the management aware of this request and the liability? Contractors often do not effectively communicate liability to the supervisory personnel or customer’s management. It is crucial to educate all parties about their shared responsibilities. Workers’ pride and overconfidence have contributed to the rise in such incidents. Employers are responsible for ensuring all workers are trained and qualified to perform their jobs and that they are working safely.

When electricians say working live is not a problem and that they have done it hundreds of times, they are not considering the possibility of an accident. If they are not familiar with the equipment they are working on, it could be a catastrophe.

Take the case of a school maintenance electrician who didn’t take time to locate the breaker feeding a circuit he was working on. His plan was to trip the breaker, perform the work, and then locate and reset the breaker when he was finished. He didn’t know that contractors were using the circuit, so when it tripped, they reset it for their own use. The maintenance electrician found out the circuit was re-energized in a manner he had not anticipated. Proper lockout/tagout would have prevented this incident. Luckily, only his pride was hurt;  he was not physically injured as a result of his actions.

How many such stories can an electrician share? Often, the victims are not around to communicate them. Any incident or accident is unacceptable; any loss is one too many.

Justifying energized work
So when is energized work justified, and what procedures must be in place to perform such tasks? OSHA requires all work to be de-energized unless cutting power is infeasible or creates a greater hazard. What does “infeasible” mean? One such instance would be if a circuit must be on and at operating conditions to get a true voltage and amperage reading. However, the person taking these readings must be qualified and meet the training and experience requirements. The person must have received safety training in proper techniques and personal protective equipment (PPE). If the company has not verified the experience and training, it may be setting these electricians up for an accident. If a worker is unsure of his or her own ability, he or she may not be the best choice for performing these tasks on energized circuits.

What does it mean to create a greater hazard? In a place where people gather, loss of egress lighting could be a problem. A nonhazardous atmosphere could turn explosive with a loss of ventilation. In a hospital, life-support systems are required for patients under care. In such cases, all precautions, training, PPE and procedures must be followed to ensure worker safety.

Fierce competition
When one contractor agrees to perform a task another has deemed unsafe, it fuels dangerous behaviors. When companies put workers into risky situations, morale can be affected.

Profitability is often measured by the net profits a company realizes at the end of the year. This includes what is left once all claims have been filed and accounted for. With electrical contractors operating over a slim 1½–3 percent profit margin, one event involving energized work could affect a company’s success for years or even lead to financially ruin.

So you need to assess whether agreeing to work on energized electrical equipment is worth the risk to the personnel, the company and the industry. Communicating the level of risks and shared responsibilities to all involved parties should show that the only choice in such cases is to turn it off.

About the Author

Wesley L. Wheeler

Director of Safety, NECA

Wes Wheeler is NECA’s director of safety and is a technical committee member on both NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code, and NFPA 70E. He can be reached at wesley.wheeler@necanet.org.

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