Invisible Enemies: Fighting Unseen Foes to Protect Employees

MIKE JOHNSTON / SHUTTERSTOCK / SAIBARAKOVA ILONA
MIKE JOHNSTON / SHUTTERSTOCK / SAIBARAKOVA ILONA

What are invisible hazards, where are they, how are they identified, and most important, how do electrical contractors protect employees from them?

It can be difficult to protect yourself from hazards you cannot see, and electricians and electrical contractors face this type of issue each day. Electricity is a valuable resource and, simultaneously, an invisible enemy with regard to the dangers it presents to electrical workers.

Electricity cannot be seen or heard, and it doesn’t have an odor, but it can certainly be felt. Risks associated with electricity include shock, arc flash and arc blast, which can cause devastating damage to people and property.

If electrical workers and contractors can properly handle electricity, they can handle other invisible dangers by relying on their already developed knowledge and skills. In many ways, the risk-assessment process looks the same. COVID-19, SARS, MERS, H1N1 and other infectious agents and viruses are also invisible enemies. If these hazards are assessed with the same tools and processes used to protect electricians from electrical hazards, we can effectively shelter employees in all areas of hazard exposure covered by a company safety program and policies.

Employers have the duty and responsibility to provide a workplace free from recognized danger. OSHA states in 29 CFR 1926.21(b)(2), “The employer shall instruct each employee in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe conditions and the regulations applicable to his work environment to control or eliminate any hazards or other exposure to illness or injury.”

Electrical contractors should be familiar with the regulations pertaining to electrical work found in OSHA 1910 for General Industry and 1926 for Construction and use tools such as NFPA 70E, the Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, to assist them in complying with these regulations. Engineering, administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE) have long been the standardized and known approaches that OSHA lists to address hazards.

Electrical safety programs

By understanding the hierarchy of controls and the proper procedures in performing risk assessments, safety professionals have been successfully using NFPA 70E for developing and implementing electrical safety programs.

An electrical safety program is “a documented system consisting of electrical safety principles, policies, procedures and the process that directs activities appropriate for the risk associated with electrical hazards.”

These written programs have proven to be effective and drive proper compliance with regulatory requirements and consensus standards. The same principles used in written electrical safety plans are present in infectious exposures control plans.

Using the hierarchy of controls and establishing an electrically safe work condition prioritizes the proper actions to protect workers from hazards.

The first solution that might pop into your head—PPE—is, in fact, the last. Elimination is the first step in the hierarchy. How, then, can we use elimination to address infectious exposures? If we do not put a worker in known areas where these hazards exist, we have eliminated the potential for exposure. If the worker must enter into an area where possible exposure could occur, the remaining hierarchy helps determine proper actions for protection. Eliminations, substitution, awareness, engineering controls, administrative controls and PPE round out the hierarchy and lead us to performing risk assessments.

Conducting a proper risk assessment is fundamental in keeping electrical workers safe.

What does a risk assessment include?

An electrical risk assessment is the overall process of identifying electrical hazards, performing risk analysis and evaluating the potential for injury or illness to an affected worker.

The steps to performing an effective risk assessment are:

  • Identify the hazards.
  • Identify the exposures; who is at risk of exposure?
  • Assess the probability of risk.
  • Use the hierarchy of risk control, including applying appropriate PPE.
  • Document the information. Keep a record!
  • Review the findings. Take action, and implement a work plan.

Use information from the risk assessment to determine the likelihood of injury or exposure and what, if any, PPE will be needed. This is the key to protecting workers while following all known and established best practices and procedures.

NFPA 70E has two types of risk assessments for protecting electrical workers. A shock risk assessment (found in 130.4) is used to identify shock hazards, estimate the likelihood and severity of injury or damage to health, and determine the necessary protective measures. An arc flash risk assessment, (found in 130.5,) can be used to identify arc flash hazards, to estimating the likelihood and potential severity of injury or damage to health, and to determine if additional protective measures are needed.

Document the results from both these assessments to ensure proper worker protection. If it is determined that justified energized work is to be performed, then the appropriate PPE must be provided and worn during those tasks where the worker is exposed to the electrical hazards. NFPA 70E provides a valuable resource in Table 130.5(C) a list of tasks to help determine the likelihood of an occurrence of an event related to electrical hazards (shock or arc flash).

COVID-19 pandemic

What, if anything, in the risk assessment process would be different in assessing the danger for electrical workers exposed to or potentially exposed to COVID-19?

The COVID-19 virus is invisible, elusive, mobile and communicable, and it can be fatal. However, it is very difficult to determine the likelihood of exposure. Most organizations are focusing on elimination and not placing workers in areas of known infections or where increased exposure to the virus could occur. Keeping the workers out of such areas is the first required objective, according to the hierarchy of risk control. There is no difference in the risk assessment process other than the hazard itself.

In this case, the hazard is the virus, and the risk is worker exposure. Risk assessments must still be performed and documented by employers. The employer is also responsible for providing any necessary PPE if it is determined that a worker must enter an area where they are exposed to the invisible hazard.

Medical workers are on the front lines dealing with COVID-19, and their employers are required to provide them with the appropriate and complete PPE to protect them. Healthcare risk assessment processes make these determinations for the workers. They perform and use risk assessments the same way electrical contractors are required to do. The processes are very similar, just with different assessments performed based on the hazards involved.

It’s all about following a consistent process when it comes to risk assessments. The process will work for hazards such as falls, caught between, struck by, respirable materials and others. Performing a risk assessment provides employers with the necessary documentation and best approach for determining worker hazard protection. The more difficult aspect of risk assessments associated with a contagious virus is the likelihood of exposure. Likelihood is hard to determine.

Let’s do a basic example: If you were to fly across the country, is there a chance the plane could crash, causing everyone to perish? Yes, there is a chance. Is there a likelihood that would occur? No, not likely. This extreme example makes the point about each situation needing its own assessment to determine likelihood of an infectious exposure occurrence.

Applying the risk-assessment process for COVID-19 would be very similar to assessing electrical hazards and must be site-specific. There is no easy button here. Each site must be assessed to determine the level of risk.

A risk assessment for COVID-19 exposure involves identifying the danger, performing risk analysis and evaluating the potential for injury or illness to an affected worker. Use the same basic steps as used for other hazards.

The risk assessment results will point to the likelihood of injury to health or exposure and helps decide if any PPE must be provided and worn by employees. This process is essential to protecting employees. The employees’ responsibility is to follow all known employer policies, best practices and procedures to safely perform job-related operations.

Electricians and electrical contractors can prepare for any hazard, visible or invisible, by following protocols in place for performing risk assessments. Worker safety and protection should be on the minds of every electrical worker, family member, employer and governmental agency; everyone must follow the company policies and procedures that should be in every contractor safety program. These are just a few important processes that help ensure employees are safe and remain healthy on the job and return home after each workday.

About the Author

Michael Johnston and Wesley Wheeler

JOHNSTON is NECA’s executive director of standards and safety. He is chair of the NEC Correlating Committee; chair of the NFPA Electrical Section; and a member of the IBEW, NFPA Education Section and the UL Electrical Council. Reach him at mj@necanet...

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