Electrical Safety: Different Domains

Working with electricity is no laughing matter. Here's how to get through to employees with your safety training.

Throughout my 27 years spent working in manufacturing, I've worked with electricity in some way or another. I've been a maintenance mechanic, maintenance supervisor, equipment technician, appliance repairman, TV/VCR technician, and more. Although I've been extremely fortunate never to have encountered a fatality that was caused by electricity, almost everyone I've worked with has been zapped, tingled, or shocked at some point in their lives, either on or off the job.

Everyone seems to be an electrician. In fact, hang around an electronics repair shop for even a little while, and you will be amazed at just how many TVs, VCRs, and microwave ovens are brought in for repair after their owners have opened them up for a look-see and concluded that the thing "has a short in it," oblivious to the fact that shorts cause fires and their device isn't burned up. The school of hard knocks teaches us that many people make funny noises when they encounter the high-voltage anode in a TV — I know I did — but people seem awfully willing to risk it.

Even though I am intimidated by the controls on a washing machine, at one time I never hesitated to take the back off a television set to see whether I could fix it. Going back to real school and getting a degree in electronics filled in some major gaps in my knowledge, but, more importantly, it made those gaps visible and showed me how little I know.

In the course of my work, I've run into many of the usual electrical hazards that exist in most workplaces, as well as some that weren't usual at all. Among the less-usual hazards were:

  • A worker shorted a wedding ring from the positive post on a car battery to ground, causing a severe burn.
  • A three-wire 220v clothes dryer receptacle wired so that one hot wire and the neutral wire were reversed, thereby energizing the dryer's exterior.
  • A leaky water heater that trapped water between the tank and outer skin, covering the wires on the heating element; people using the bathtub in that house complained of a tingle when they touched the spigot or knobs while sitting in the tub Behavioral issues encountered:
  • Machine operator using an analog multimeter set to the ohms scale to read voltage, destroying the meter
  • Yours truly used a digital multimeter set on ohms to duplicate the result just listed
  • People testing electrical parts they thought could be energized with the backs of their hands so they wouldn't be "grabbed" and unable to let go if the part were "hot"
  • Workers not verifying that power actually went off when a disconnect was opened and locked out (i.e., the separate 120v feed)
  • People using standard screwdrivers for electrical work
  • Mistaking the plastic coating on regular pliers for electrical insulation (yours truly, again)
  • Performing live voltage and/or current readings without PPE of any kind
  • Workers intentionally shorting out branch circuits in order to trip the breaker so they could work on the circuits (usually on overhead fluorescent light circuits)
  • One co-worker who enjoyed cutting energized 110v power cords with an old pair of scissors (and his bare hands) just to watch other people's reactions when the arc flashed
  • More than one person making the statement, "It's only 120 (volts)."

The above are not hypothetical scenarios. The hazards were faced and the unsafe acts were committed by real people with real lives and real families. I'd bet that most, if not all, of the folks have forgotten their respective incidents over the years. Even though the incidents may have startled them (and me) at the time, we move on and memories can fade.

All hazards have causes, and we could draw a parallel in this instance to accidents. Just as accidents have surface and root causes, usually several of each type, so do hazards. Looking back I can see many causes of the things listed but believe the biggest cause is pure, simple complacency. The fact that almost everyone has had an electrical shock at one time or another may give people the mistaken impression that it's not a big deal.

Let's Get Everyone Involved

In many of the examples listed above, there was no qualified person training done. There were no qualified people to do the work. People who had no training were using test instruments to look for an invisible but potentially lethal force. Improper repairs were made. Preventive maintenance wasn't performed. Shortcuts were taken. The vast majority of the incidents were never even reported to management. The incidents were perceived to be just part of it.

Let's get every employee involved in electrical safety. Let's help them understand their knowledge of electrical safety is a portable asset they can use at home to increase their family's safety, but it is only one such asset. Let's take a different look at electrical safety, using a three-pronged approach. Qualified and unqualified workers have to have the ability to identify electrical hazards in order to guard against injury. They have to care about the potential results of contact with the hazards, and they have to have the ability to handle or respond to them.

One great old classic education concept is Bloom's Taxonomy, which groups learning activities into three parts, or domains:

Cognitive domain: deals with mental skills, intellectual capability (Knowledge)
Affective domain: deals with feelings, emotions behaviors (Attitude)
Psychomotor domain: deals with manual or physical skills (Skills)

Using Bloom's Taxonomy to get employees involved in electrical safety is a great way to structure and deliver information to them, and it can be used as an assessment tool and checklist to track activities related to improving electrical safety or any other training effort. The cognitive domain is arguably where we spend most of our awareness efforts. To address the cognitive domain, first determine who needs what knowledge, then go to work. Because the cognitive domain involves the knowledge aspect of learning, give your workers training on reading the schematics and electrical diagrams for all of the equipment they will service. (The electrical schematics for some equipment made in Germany were much different than the schematics for the American-made equipment I had to service in one facility. The text was even in German, and there were numerous problems caused by the differences in the drawings as a result.) Provide training on the actual test equipment workers will use. Keep them current on your facility's lockout/tagout procedures. Your company's safety rules are another subject to cover in the cognitive domain. The affective domain is where we tackle the feelings or emotional issues of learning.

It's where the attitudes lie. This is where most of the electrical safety issues I've encountered have been. Rules and regulations can be learned, but attitudes can be hard to change. Here's where we have to make electrical safety personal. Presenting case studies during training can help "make it real" for employees. Showing videos made by electrical accident survivors can help people internalize the reality of accidents. Some of the gory videos and pictures could have value at times. Invite discussion in safety meetings so employees can give examples of electrical accidents related to their worlds, which are the most real worlds of all. The psychomotor domain has real applicability in electrical safety. This is the hands-on, manual dexterity, physical, tool-handling portion of our electrical safety improvement effort. Now that employees have been given knowledge and the desire to apply it, we need to be sure they have the ability to transform these things into safe work. This domain helps bridge the gap between education and actual training or application of the other skills. Here, we can identify coordination issues, vision problems, improper tool choices, and more.

Let's borrow and tweak some things from the LOTO standard, The control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout) — 1910.147, which delineates the rules for conducting inspections of energy control procedures at least annually. As a starting point to improve electrical safety in the psychomotor domain, we can build a hands-on skills verification process by modeling the points in 1910.147(c)(6)(i) through (c)(6)(ii) and using them as an outline. To tweak the standard's steps, set up random (periodic) hands-on tests to have qualified workers demonstrate proficiency in reading schematics and handling test equipment. This could be done during the appropriate phase of the LOTO inspection requirement. Piggybacking an electrical safety inspection/observation program with the LOTO inspection will save time by paralleling similar tasks.

Designate and properly train, in advance, an authorized employee to conduct the inspections. Certify that the inspections have been done. If corrections were made, document those, as well. The inspection isn't a witch hunt. It should be done to identify problems so they can be corrected before someone gets hurt or killed, or before equipment is damaged. Knowing random tests are coming can help employees keep awareness of safe procedures high. It also reinforces to workers that the rules, regulations, and theory on which they train so much are accompanied by real actions; it gives them a venue in which to showcase their knowledge.

Have a version of this inspection for unqualified workers. Let them go hands-on by pointing out hazards, such as damaged cords or other things in their worlds. Loads of material have been written on the regulatory aspects of electrical safety, and it serves the cognitive domain well. Let's energize the other two learning domains and raise awareness in a couple of different learning areas.

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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