The Dog That Didn't Bark

Recognizing all essential workers—including those in the electrical field—and their associated hazards when it comes to working in a pandemic.

Many people have heard of the famous Sherlock Holmes mystery about the “dog that didn’t bark.” It’s a short story from 1892 called “Silver Blaze” and it’s about the disappearance of a famous racehorse the night before a race and the murder of the horse’s trainer. Sherlock Homes solves the mystery, in part, by recognizing that no one he spoke to in his investigation remarked that they had heard barking from the watchdog during the night. The fact that the dog did not bark when you would expect it to led Sherlock Homes to the conclusion that the criminal was a not a stranger to the dog but someone the dog recognized, and therefore, would not cause him to bark. Holmes drew a conclusion from a fact (barking) that did not occur, which can be referred to as a “fact, absent from the record.”

This classic story reminds me of how the Coronavirus pandemic has caused people to finally see another “fact, absent from the record,” which is who the hidden heroes are in the world today: our essential workers. Our lives would quickly start to unravel without essential workers like nurses, doctors, military, police, paramedics and fire fighters. There is no question that electrical workers are also part of this core group of essential workers.

The pictures and videos of healthcare workers putting their lives at risk to care for people who have contracted the COVID-19 virus are amazing, and millions of people around the world have expressed their appreciation to these heroes. We’ve also seen many other types of essential workers continue to face this threat head-on by going to work every day to make sure our food supply, medicine and, yes, even our toilet paper continues to flow into stores throughout the country.

Recognizing All Essential Workers

Many companies have also stepped up and thousands of workers are now working on production lines in order to increase the supply of American-made medical PPE and other important products that are so desperately needed right now. It has been inspiring and uplifting to watch everyone come together to help fight through this every day, and I personally hope the gratitude towards all of these hidden heroes continues far beyond the conclusion of this crisis.

However, there is another important “fact, absent from the record” that I wanted to briefly cover. There’s no question that Americans take electricity for granted and, much like the dog that didn’t bark, if the lights turn on when they’re supposed to, it goes largely unnoticed. As an example of this, I doubt many people have noticed that there haven’t been any major electrical outages during this pandemic. I also don’t think many people realize the tremendous problems that would be caused if our electrical supply suddenly stopped.

Can you imagine if every electrician in a city contracted the virus and couldn’t work? What would happen to that city? Hospital power/ ventilators? The internet? Civility? Yet, unsurprisingly, most people don’t even think of it, nor do we thank the people responsible for keeping the lights on. I’m sure that’s just fine with these essential electrical workers, as most of the linemen and electricians I know don’t need praise or recognition. They just like to wake up early every day, work hard, get the job done and go back home to their families, hopefully in the same condition they were in when they left for work.

Today, in addition to facing the common “everyday threat” of electrical arc flash and shock hazards, they also must face this new threat from a potentially deadly virus. They do all this important work quietly, so all of the other essential workers can see what they’re doing and rely on life-saving medical equipment to operate properly when it’s called upon. Without a doubt, these essential electrical workers are also in the hero category.

Electrical Safety PPE Hazards

A few years ago, I did some traveling throughout the states to learn more about the pain points associated with electrical PPE. I was surprised by how many of these workers were required to share electrical PPE suits and hoods and gloves. It would be unfathomable to think of a nurse taking off their personal medical PPE at the end of the day, put it in a gear bag overnight—without washing or disinfecting—and then have a different nurse open the bag and don the same PPE the next day. Surprisingly, this is what is exactly what’s happening in the electrical PPE world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting this questionable practice under scrutiny, and most people agree that it needs to change—for good. Many safety professionals this past month have asked for guidance on how to properly clean and disinfect electrical PPE, so it can be issued to a different user without the risk of unintentionally transferring the virus. The CDC has provided some helpful guidelines on how cleaning and disinfecting can be effective in removing the COVID-19 virus.

This is good news; however, it would take a minor miracle for a company to effectively manage a program that requires all of the PPE to be thoroughly washed and disinfected before every use. Someone would have to be responsible to pull them out of the service, dismantle the face shields from the hoods, wash the fabric portion of the suits and hoods in laundry machines while manually cleaning the face shields and other hard surfaces with soap and water. They would also have to use disinfectant wipes to make sure the PPE storage bag is properly disinfected. Obviously, the easiest and preferred practice is to issue each electrical worker with their own personal electrical PPE kit. While the PPE should still be washed, it would be for hygienic and odor reasons, not to protect people from contracting deadly viruses.

We asked dozens of safety professionals how, when and why this practice of sharing electrical PPE ever started in the first place. The short answer is after the NFPA 70E standard was updated in 2000, companies wanted to provide their workers with the proper electrical PPE so they would comply with the new arc flash requirements. At that time, sharing electrical PPE seemed to be a viable option. This approach started to spread until it morphed into an “industry norm.” The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a huge challenge to these programs and companies that are now scrambling to figure out a new solution.

What’s interesting about this situation is that safety professionals understand how dangerous electrical work is and want all workers to comply with safety requirements. Therefore, safety professionals are often willing to invest in the most user friendly and comfortable electrical PPE so the workers will want to wear PPE when it’s required. Otherwise, workers may avoid wearing it altogether, which can negatively impact compliance rates and, more importantly, compromise worker safety. Many case studies performed over the years from actual injuries and fatalities prove that one incident could more than pay for an individual electrical PPE program for many years or even decades.

There is no question that the upfront cost of electrical PPE is much higher than other types of PPE. However, electrical PPE is very durable and routinely lasts five to 10 years in the field. In addition, it’s human nature to take better care of something that is personal to you, which lowers replacement costs due to loss and damage. Therefore, although the upfront expense of issuing electrical PPE to each worker will be higher, it balances out over time, and the “cost per wear” would not be much more in the long run. Another common concern is: “what if employees leave and we get caught holding the bag?” (literally). Well, as confirmed by the CDC, it’s nice to know that electrical PPE can be properly cleaned and disinfected so it can easily be reissued to a new employee in safe condition.

We’re all hoping to get on the other side of this pandemic soon. When it’s over, there will undoubtedly be many positive changes made in the way we work and live that will remain in place for decades. One of the positive changes should be keeping electrical personal protective equipment “personal” by phasing out legacy shared electrical PPE programs. That would allow the heroes who are keeping the lights on to be properly protected, without having to worry about any additional hidden hazards.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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