Take Precautions When Working with Power

Basic safeguards will prevent accidents and injuries when using generators.

Every year, severe and even fatal accidents occur in the workplace from improper equipment use. Accidents happen when operators cut corners, trying to save time, simply are negligent, or just don't know the proper safety procedures to follow. A commitment to safety on every job site is important, whether the project is a small renovation on a home, a brand-new commercial facility, or a landscaping project in a park. Of course, safety precautions almost go without saying when working with large equipment, such as skid steers and telehandlers, and even smaller power tools such as saws and drills. But when thinking safety, how often do operators pause to consider the piece of equipment in the background -- the generator?

Portable generators, because they are typically small in size and have a quiet presence, are often ignored. Set it up, let it power your tools, and forget it, right? However, generators are very powerful pieces of equipment and can do serious harm to a negligent operator. Not only that, innocent bystanders are at risk for injury when a generator is being used improperly. For these reasons, generators deserve just as much safety consideration as any tool or machine on a job site. It's no coincidence that the first few pages of a generator owner's manual are chock full of safety tips.

From carbon monoxide poisoning to electrical and fire hazards, there are several serious risks involved when operating a generator. The good news is, with some basic knowledge and a conscious commitment to safety, most potential dangers can be avoided.

First Things First
Before even operating the generator, it is wise to become familiar with the owner's manual -- that big book mentioned earlier, with all the safety tips. While one is not expected to memorize the manual cover to cover, just taking a few minutes to read through the basics and become familiar with the unit will go a long way.

Be able to identify the main parts of the generator and all warning and hazard symbols. Many models will have decals displaying these symbols so the operator is acutely aware of potential dangers. The next step before operating the generator is to conduct a quick visual inspection. This will alert the operator to possible safety hazards. Check for any loose, cut, or frayed wiring or major damage the generator may have endured during transport. A pre-operation inspection is especially imperative on job sites where the unit is moved around frequently.

Finally, location is important when setting up a generator. Always place a generator on a flat, stable surface to reduce the likelihood of its tipping over. Doing this will prevent damage to the generator and power cords and eliminate a potentially hazardous fuel spill. The generator's location on the job site will further contribute to safety by preventing carbon monoxide poisoning, a serious and potentially deadly hazard.

Don't Breathe It In
Most people are aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. What makes it especially dangerous is that it's invisible, odorless, tasteless, and virtually undetectable,. yet its effects can be severe, even fatal.

As stated previously, the best way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning goes right back to location, location, location. Never operate an engine-powered generator in an enclosed space. This includes garages, sheds, basements, and any indoor space, regardless of how well ventilated it may appear to be. Even if the space is only partially enclosed or has an open a window or door, a serious risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is still present.

Furthermore, never operate a generator near a building where the carbon monoxide fumes could enter through open windows, doors, or vents. The general rule of thumb is to keep the unit at least 3 feet away from an occupied building. Abiding by this guideline will ensure the safety of those working with the generator and those who just happen to be nearby.

To prevent a dangerous level of carbon monoxide poisoning, it's important to recognize and respond to symptoms. Initial signs of poisoning consist of headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and disorientation and are often mistaken for influenza or food poisoning. If these are ignored, more serious symptoms will occur and may include increased heart rate, hallucinations, seizures, and unconsciousness. If anyone working near a generator experiences any of these warning signs, it is crucial to get fresh air immediately or seek medical attention. Remember, symptoms can turn deadly within a matter of minutes, so it's important to recognize and respond to them at the first sign.

Another potentially harmful effect from improper generator use is similar to carbon monoxide poisoning in that it can't be seen but can be deadly: electrical shocks.

This May Come As A Shock
Though there are different degrees of electric shock severity, any amount will cause pain. Beyond delivering an unpleasant jolt, a severe shock can result in bodily harm, including nerve and tissue damage. Fortunately, most shock hazards can be prevented by following a few simple guidelines.

Even with careful and safe practices, generators can malfunction and accidents can happen, which is why properly grounding the generator during set-up is crucial. This step is one of the most commonly overlooked safety practices but takes just a few minutes. All generators will include a small grounding lug. Simply wrap grounding wire around the lug and burrow it into the ground. If a malfunction happens to occur, the ground -- not the operator -- will absorb any electrical shock.

A careful operator also will take care to prevent backfeeding, which occurs when electrical power flows in the opposite direction as usual. Because of the dangers to both utility workers and residents served by the same utility transformer, it is illegal to plug a generator into any public service line, including standard outlets in a home or garage. A utility worker repairing a power line miles away from the generator can still be electrocuted due to backfeeding if the generator is plugged into that line.

While many operators may not be aware of backfeeding, a more commonly understood hazard is the danger of electricity and water. In fact, when dealing with anything electric, even a small amount of moisture can be dangerous. Be sure the generator is completely dry before operation, and in the event of rain or snow conditions, shelter it with a protective cover or tarp. Anyone touching the generator should always be sure his or her hands are dry before coming in contact with the unit.

Even when it is shut off, the generator should not come in direct contact with water. For this reason, never dump water on a generator or use a pressure washer to clean it. If the engine and generator are extremely greasy or dirty, spray on a non-petroleum-based degreaser and wipe it clean with a cloth or soft brush. A damp cloth may be used for smaller spot cleanings, but be sure to dry the unit completely before operating it again.

Fire Safety
Most electrical problems will cause unpleasant shock hazards, but the most severe may cause sparks, and even a fire. To prevent additional fire hazards during generator use, follow a few basic rules and use a little common sense.

Location is once again key. Keep the generator away from wood, dry grass, and leaves because these can ignite quickly.

Just as it's important not to place the generator near anything flammable, don't place anything flammable near a generator. Fuel, matches, oily rags, trash, or anything else that could be even slightly flammable should be kept a good distance away at all times. When it comes to gas- and diesel-powered units, this principle also applies to fuel storage. Use only approved containers and store all fuel and other flammable liquids away from the generator.

Additionally, be very careful when handling fuel and filling the tank. Check the fuel level prior to operation and fill if necessary, using caution to prevent spills. In the event fuel needs to be added during operation, first shut off the unit and be sure the engine has cooled completely. Never add fuel to the engine when the generator is running.

To prevent damage to equipment and a fire in the power cord, do not overload the generator. Every unit has a wattage output that must not be exceeded by the total wattage draw of the equipment being powered. Furthermore, plug all equipment directly into the generator if possible. However, in the event extension cords are required, be sure they are heavy duty, outdoor use rated and properly sized for the particular unit.

Finally, a little common sense will go a long way in fire prevention. It may go without saying, but the most obvious safety tip is a simple one: Don't smoke near the generator. No explanation should be needed.

Staying Pain Free
Beyond these serious dangers, personal injury can occur with improper generator use. A generator is a major piece of equipment, and the potential for physical injuries does exist. Recognize these potential dangers and abide by the necessary steps to prevent them.

Certain parts of engine-powered units can become extremely hot, particularly the muffler. Never touch a muffler even after the engine and generator have been shut off, because severe burns can occur. Some manufacturers include guards around the muffler to prevent this potential danger. Look for this safety feature when purchasing or renting a generator, to eliminate the potential hazard.

The engine itself will become very hot with prolonged use, so exercise caution when shutting it off at the end of a long period of operation. Proceed with turning off and disconnecting all powered equipment first, then turn off the generator. Always allow plenty of time for the unit to cool down before moving it or doing any maintenance check or repair work. Cool-down time will vary based on how long the generator has been running; it's best to allow several minutes. At the end of the day, store the generator and extension cords in a safe, dry place protected from weather elements.

Just as with any other piece of equipment on a job site, safe generator operation should always be a priority. Serious and fatal accidents can occur, but most can be avoided by taking a little extra time to exercise safe and proper use. To protect yourself and others around you, keep in mind these tips and those listed in the owner's manual and be sure to observe them at all times.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Pam Meyer is Equipment Sales Manager for Subaru Industrial Power Products. For more information, contact Subaru Industrial Power Products in Lake Zurich, Ill., at 847-847-2963 or www.subarupower.com.

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