Electricity is Everywhere
Electricity is part of our daily lives, and it’s important to understand the hazards it poses.
- By Lauren Holman
- Jun 01, 2020
Today, electricity is a phenomenon that exists absolutely everywhere. We use it to illuminate our homes, charge our devices, provide power to our appliances, and to perform most of our daily tasks. For most of us, the extent to which we think about electricity does not go beyond our everyday use. But how much do we know about the mysterious force that lights our rooms, powers our appliances and charges our devices?
Given its prominent presence in our day-to-day lives, understanding the basics of electricity, and how to stay safe around it, is essential. This article will seek to help readers better understand electricity, including the hazards that it poses for workers. It will also identify ways to mitigate these safety risks.
Electricity is a form of energy that captures the flow of electrons through a conductor. It’s important to note that some materials carry electricity better than others. How well a given material allows electricity to pass through it is known as its resistance. If a substance has a high resistance to electrical current, that means that electrons cannot pass through it easily. These materials are otherwise known as insulators. Glass, rubber, cloth, and plastic are a few examples of good insulators and are generally used to guard against the flow of electricity.
A conductor is the opposite of an insulator and is known to carry electricity very well. Good conductors include copper, steel, aluminum, and most metals. Conductors are often used to provide an easy path for electricity, such as the copper used in electrical wiring in homes. Electricity will always take the quickest and easiest path. If the most direct path involves flowing through the human body, this is where electricity will flow.
Who Bears the Greatest Risk?
In addition to electricians, engineers and overhead line workers are at a very high risk of suffering electrocution on the job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a fatality rate of 19.2 workers out of every 100,000 for electrical powerline installers and repairers, and an average electrocution death toll of 25 workers per year. Workers who work near overhead power lines bear the most considerable risk primarily because the lines are not insulated even though they still can carry up to 700,000 volts of power. Even 50 volts can be damaging to the human body; thus, any contact with an overhead powerline could be deadly for a worker.
Key jobs that put these workers at the highest risk are electrical repairs, installations, maintenance, or working with large machinery that could potentially come in contact with the lines. Although workers whose jobs require them to work directly with electricity are at the highest risk of electrocution, employees who work indirectly with electricity are at risk, too. Something as simple as changing a light bulb at your home office could become fatal if the device is not unplugged. Thus, everyone needs to be aware of the hazards associated with electricity.
Common Electrical Hazards
An electrical hazard is defined by any instance where a person may come in contact with a conductor or with an energized object, thus causing that person to suffer a shock, burn or electrocution.
Overloaded circuits and poor wiring. Some of the most common electrical hazards are overloaded circuits and poor wiring. Circuits can easily become overloaded if a wire, or another part of an electrical system, exceeds the maximum amount of current that can be carried safely. Overloads are dangerous because they can cause wires to heat up excessively and lead to a workplace fire.
Similarly, poor wiring is a significant electrical safety hazard. Companies must ensure that the wires being use can handle the amount of electrical current that will regularly be flowing through. Otherwise, wires will also be subject to over-heating and will become a fire hazard.
Exposed electrical. Parts of electrical work that are exposed can also present an additional electrical hazard. These may include detached insulation components or temporary lighting. Burns and shocks are the most common injury suffered from these hazards that are likely to come about if a worker comes in contact with an open fuse or power unit. Similar injuries can occur as a result of contact with damaged equipment or tools, such as broken wires or faulty cables. Improper insulation also undermines the safety of many workspaces, as it exposes workers more to electrical currents.
Water. One of the best conductors of electricity is water itself. Thus, wet conditions pose a huge electrical safety risk for workers. Even if an employee is well-grounded, if that employee touches a live wire and he or she is standing in even the smallest puddle of water, he or she will get shocked. Workers should know that standing in a puddle is not the only criteria for getting shocked—moisture or wet clothing will also increase the risk of electrocution.
Improperly grounded systems. Electrical systems must also be grounded adequately. There are numerous components of an electrical wiring system that workers are required to touch, many of which are composed of metal. If these conductors are not grounded properly, they could be carrying an unknown number of volts and could be extremely hazardous if workers come in contact. Thus, improperly grounded systems are unable to manage unwanted voltage and the metal components of that system could shock or even kill an unsuspecting worker.
Temporary electrical. Another extremely common factor that plagues many workplaces is the usage of temporary wiring systems. While not hazardous if set up properly, temporary wiring is often faulty because it is prone to damage and wear. Unlike fixed wiring, temporary wiring is often supported by staples, put up near stairs or doorways, and exposed to the footpaths of workers. This makes it much more likely to become frayed or broken and become an electrical hazard.
Slips, trips and falls. If a worker is burned or shocked, his or her reaction may be erratic and unpredictable which can cause anything in their immediate environment to also become a safety hazard. Slips, trips, and falls make up a large portion of injuries suffered from electrical accidents. Employees who work with overhead powerlines are often also required to work at heights. Thus, if something goes wrong, the worker will not only be electrocuted, but he or she will also fall from a great height. Furthermore, extension systems that are inadequately secured pose significant tripping hazards.
Here’s What Your Company Can Do
Given the broad spectrum of electrical hazards that exist for workers, employers and employees must take the necessary steps to either eliminate or mitigate the risks. Overloads occur when the electrical demand for a circuit exceeds what it can supply. It’s important to be aware of your wattage and the electrical demand of each plug-in. Circuit breakers are an easy addition that shut off the power when the electrical current gets too high. Paying close attention to the wires being used for the job is essential to prevent wire-related incidents and fires that occur from improper wiring. To mitigate water-related electrical incidents, make sure there is no excess moisture or humidity near or around your wiring. When working with electricity, workers must ensure that they are completely dry.
Your organization should also make sure that all electrical systems are properly grounded to prevent workers from accidentally coming in contact with a live system. Temporary wiring systems should be avoided whenever necessary. As soon as the need for such a system is gone, fixed wiring systems should once again be installed out of the way of normal work activities. Extension cords should also only be used as a very temporary solution and should always be secured so that they do not become a tripping hazard. Lastly, because most overhead powerlines are not insulated, workers should assume that all powerlines are energized. Workers should keep their bodies, and their equipment, at least 10 feet away from powerlines, since electricity can arc to nearby objects. Employees should also refrain from working in trees that are close to powerlines. Proper education and training on the associated risks and hazard mitigation techniques is essential.
Lastly, the implementation of an automated worker monitoring solution is a great way to ensure the safety of your people at all times. Systems that allow employees to check-in periodically throughout their shift provide monitors with peace of mind, regardless of how hazardous the job may be. Electrical hazards exist anywhere there is electricity. Companies must take the necessary steps to ensure that their people are protected.
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.