The Top Six Reasons for Modernizing Your Electrical Safety Program

With changes in a facility comes changes in its electrical hazards. Make sure you’re keeping up.

In your plant, there’s a good chance your facility’s electrical equipment is continually being changed or updated (moves and adds), and maybe even improved. Thus, your electrical safety program should also address these changes.

In keeping up with new technology and evolving safety concerns, safety standards are periodically revised. Updated standards should be viewed as a benefit to facility and safety managers, as they bring opportunities to modernize your electrical safety program and stay up to date on existing trends in electrical safety. Here are the top six reasons for modernizing your electrical safety program.

Changes in standards. If there’s ever a constant, it is change. The NFPA Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace (NFPA 70E), is updated every three years. NFPA 70E isn’t adopted into federal law or OSHA regulation, but OSHA has a history of citing it as a best practice when electrical incidents occur. OSHA’s general duty clause requires employers to provide employees with a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm.” Because OSHA regulations are not frequently updated, they will often reference consensus standards (like NFPA 70E) as a best practice when issuing citations to the general duty clause.

Therefore, even though NFPA 70E is a voluntary standard, and compliance is not required by law, it effectively describes electrical hazards and best practices to mitigate them. Thus, failure to comply with this or similar guidelines can result in OSHA citations.

Training will always be essential. For any worker who may be exposed to electrical hazards, training is vital. Employees performing electrical work need to understand the requirements of the electrical safety program, including the ability to recognize electrical hazards, know safe work practices, and conduct procedures for protection against these hazards. Non-electrical workers should also be trained to identify electrical hazards and recognize when electrical work is being performed so they do not put themselves, or the electrical workers, at risk.

Training should be ongoing: do not underestimate the importance of retraining. Workers leave, new workers are added, and sometimes people forget what they have learned, or they may become complacent as tasks become routine.

Additionally, retention is important if you consider the Normalization of Deviance phenomenon. This phenomenon is described as “when people within the organization become so accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.”

Facility updates and new equipment. Electrical equipment in a facility is often moved, added, or reconfigured to keep up with changing production demands. Often, these changes may include updates to safety technology. Thus, the electrical safety program should be updated to address those changes. When new equipment is added, a circuit is moved, protective devices get replaced or changed, or when any electrical wiring or cables are modified, it’s time to update your arc flash hazard analysis and revisit the safety program.

Evaluate if new electrical safety technology can be incorporated—maybe one that signals when it’s time to update the electrical safety program—when either existing equipment is added or when lines are configured.

Near misses. According to the National Safety Council, almost 75 percent of all accidents are preceded by a near miss. It’s essential to document and record near misses, minor accidents, and close calls, especially those that have the potential for injury. The overall safety culture in the facility gets stronger when reporting near misses are encouraged and not punished. If it’s not reported, the opportunity to mitigate hazards by taking corrective actions, including updates to the electrical safety program, is missed.

Employee and facility worker expansion. A modern electrical safety program is all about teamwork. When a facility’s employee base has grown, or when shifts are added, it’s an excellent opportunity to take the time to update the electrical safety program to demonstrate to employees–new and old–that the safety culture is strong. Converse to expansion: if a plant experiences a reduction in staff or significant employee turnover, this can lead to employees being asked to do other tasks for which they may not be adequately trained.

Therefore, changes that also affect the workforce should be a reminder to revisit the electrical safety program to assure that all workers are not only properly trained but also understand their roles in advancing the safety culture.

LOTO program evolution. Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) programs have become a common practice for safeguarding employees. Yet, the incident rate of electrical workplace injuries has remained relatively unchanged over the past decade.

The NFPA 70E 2018 standards now explicitly state that the priority of any safety program needs to be the elimination of the hazards. Two areas of improvement, in particular, can go a long way in moving the focus of your LOTO program from mitigation toward elimination.

Collaboration

Reducing hazards isn’t possible without all employees adhering to the program, and safety procedures can’t be developed in a vacuum. That’s why the most effective LOTO programs are built in collaboration with multiple departments. In addition to helping increase buy-in, attacking a problem from various angles can reveal hidden stumbling blocks and provide new insights for overcoming them. It’s also important to keep in mind the different groups of employees affected by your LOTO program:

  • Authorized employees—who are responsible for implementing energy control procedures and performing the required servicing or maintenance.
  • Affected employees—who operate equipment or work in an area in which an energy control procedure is being implemented.
  • Other employees (including office or warehouse personnel) —who work in an area where an energy control procedure is utilized. Each group must understand their purpose and role in the LOTO program. For example, while affected employees are not responsible for locking out or tagging out, they need to clearly understand not to start up or use the equipment during these procedures.

Bringing each group to the table gives them a real sense of ownership over the program’s design and ensures that all teams understand, support, and follow the proper procedures.

Safety Technology

The more manual steps you can eliminate from any process, the more you can reduce exposure to possible risks and potential individual errors. This is especially true for a LOTO program that depends on using handheld testers for voltage verification, which expose the person performing the test to the very electrical hazards they are trying to avoid.

Incorporating more engineering control technologies moves your LOTO program up the Hierarchy of Risk Controls by creating barriers between workers and electrical hazards.

As with any process, the easier your LOTO procedures are to implement, the more likely they will be followed. Anything that can reduce the time needed to look for proper tools, devices, or PPE should be considered. This can be as simple as having dedicated lockout kits or lockout stations.

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

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