When it comes to working with electricity, stop shooting from the hip. You owe it to your employees.

Electrical Safety Basics: Not Exactly Shocking

Factor in all of the challenges before attempting a project and be ready to go to plan B should your initial plan hit a snag.

Electricity is an essential part of the high-tech, fast-paced, demanding life in our modern society. It is used all day, every day -- so much that we probably take it for granted and forget about the dangers associated with it. Thousands of people are injured or killed every year from the hazards of electricity in both the workplace and the home.

For you, the safety professional within your organization, thinking like an inspector but acting as an educator will help to eliminate electrical hazards and at the same time raise the safety knowledge of your workforce. No matter how well understood your organization’s policies are, taking the time to clearly teach employees will only contribute to a stronger electrical safety program. Positive reinforcement will drive home the safety message and create an embraced culture of safety.

Electrical safety accidents perpetually rank in the top 10 (and frequently the top five) of annual industrial fatalities. This is likely due to the large number of variables when working with electricity and energized systems. For this reason, organization and communication are of the utmost importance to avoid contributing to these dire statistics.

Simplicity Works
Keep your electrical safety training simple and tailor it to your audience. Don't cover all of the topics at once because this would be entirely overwhelming. Instead, build the employee knowledge base over time through handouts, tailgate talks, and some classroom time.

With some electrical safety knowledge in their heads, you now have the challenge of buy-in. Overcome this hurdle by getting a variety of employees to participate in periodic (weekly, monthly, or quarterly) inspections. These inspections also don't need to be overly comprehensive to start. Begin with a simple base you can build upon as the electrical safety knowledge expands through training. Each new inspector will focus on a different type of violation, which is better than one inspector who tends to focus on just one type of hazard.

Have a Plan
When it comes to working with electricity, stop shooting from the hip. You owe it to your employees.

Remember, safety doesn't just happen. A sure-fire path to a safe and successful project involving electricity is to have a job plan. Within this plan, spell out all of the details and make sure you are not getting in over your head. Before you begin, think the project through to the end:

  • What needs to be accomplished?
  • What tools are needed to succeed?
  • Do we have the proper PPE?
  • What could go wrong, and what steps can be taken to avoid accidents?
  • Am I qualified to tackle the assigned task, or am I biting off more than I can chew?

Indoors or outdoors, up in the air near power lines or underground in a damp tunnel -- electrical work takes place in all types of conditions. Extremely dry or extremely wet, with the risk of fire or the risk of electrocution, factor in all of the challenges before attempting a project and be ready to go to plan B should your initial plan hit a snag. Additionally, be prepared to postpone electrical work altogether due to unsafe circumstances beyond your control.

Contractor Safety
If a job goes beyond your capability, hire a licensed contractor to get it done right. But just because the task at hand has shifted to a contractor doesn't completely get you off the hook. Do your due diligence; ask for proof that they are in fact from a licensed contractor and to see a portfolio of their past projects, and also ask about their safety policies. The last thing you need on a difficult project is a contractor who has embellished its technical abilities and doesn't make safety a priority.

Once you have chosen a reputable contractor, clearly review expectations, including a timeline, special circumstances, and any other varying factor. Make it clear what your organization's policies are regarding safety while on site and the consequences of not following the rules. Reiterate the importance of a job done right without compromising safety.

Lockout/Tagout Program Review
When was the last time you reviewed the lockout/tagout procedures? Dust off that binder and get reacquainted. When was it written? Who wrote it -- the site safety professional, the maintenance manager, a process engineer, or an administrative assistant? Does it still apply to current processes? Is there an emphasis on planning, safety, and communication, or does it miss the mark? Is it clearly written or clear as mud?

Speak with the appropriate employees on the details of the lockout/tagout program. Take a look at the lockout/tagout equipment stations. You might be able to tell if it is actually being used just by looking it over. If it still shines like new, dig deeper and ask some more questions or review work orders to find request for repairs of energized equipment. Review the signed-off lockout/tagout checklists that should be completed before the work is done. Learn to recognize whether shortcuts are being taken. (Of course, no one in your organization would ever take shortcuts....)

Electrical Cords and Outlets
Electrical cords are an obvious source of concern regarding electrical safety. These things get abused day in and day out; they get jerked out of sockets, stretched around sharp corners, and lie dry rotting in the scorching sun. These cords are only to be used on a temporary basis. They should be collected and properly stored after every use. Check cords periodically for tears, frays, and burn marks. Make sure all the prongs are accounted for and in good shape.

When using cords in traffic areas, remember to avoid creating a trip hazard. Never use a cord that is hot to the touch. Lastly, survey your work environment for hazards, such as standing water, which would put you unnecessarily at risk.

Outlet covers must be in place. Use grounded outlets and insert the plug fully. Test that outlets are functioning properly with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) tester. This tool is a good way to get to the bottom of electrical problems quickly.

Electrical Safety PPE
Personal protective equipment, while the last line of defense behind engineering solutions and administrative solutions, is crucial in the safety process. Hard hats, footwear, helmets, eye protection, and flame-resistant clothing all contribute to risk reduction and injury minimization for your organization's employees working with electricity. Keep up with the risk to your employees by keeping up with the latest and greatest PPE to meet your needs. Don't just provide PPE, but instead provide the exact PPE needed for the application.

Electrical Challenges Are Here to Stay
This rapidly changing, computer-driven, energy-consuming, and automated world we are immersed in today imposes extremely high demands for electricity. This reliance on electricity and utilization of energized systems places additional importance on understanding electrical safety, processes, and maintenance.

Were we safer in days gone by that placed less emphasis on electricity? It doesn't matter, because those days are gone. Moving forward with electrical safety means keeping up with the times and newer, more intelligent technologies. Build on the basics of electrical safety while remaining open to new processes, methods, and equipment.

Are you keeping up with the times?

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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