From Top to Bottom: Proper Selection of PPE for Electrical Work

From Top to Bottom: Proper Selection of PPE for Electrical Work

Let’s explore the dos and don’ts of selecting and utilizing personal protective equipment for electrical work.

Electricity is one of the most dangerous and unpredictable things you can work with. According to data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), 126 workers died due to exposure to electricity in 2020. While this number follows a trend of decline for overall occupational fatalities related to electricity, the nature of the incidents show that workers are still not taking proper precautions. 

Of the 126 fatalities, 56 percent were caused by direct exposure to electricity. CFOI defines this as injuries caused by direct contact with the power source, such as a live electrical wire or when the victim is struck by an electrical arc. Another 48 percent of the fatalities in 2020 were due to indirect exposure to electricity which includes incidents involving contact with electrical energy through some form of conductive material, such as water or uninsulated ladders.  

While education and training are the number one way that you can protect workers from electrical incidents, a robust personal protective equipment policy can also aid in keeping workers safe on the job. While OSHA has determined that PPE is an integral part of any company policy, its effectiveness to protect against electrical hazards hinges on employees’ understanding of proper selection and use.  

Let’s take a look at some of the do’s and don’ts of selecting and utilizing PPE for electrical workers from head to toe. 

It All Starts with a Hazard Assessment 

Time spent selecting personal protective equipment will be wasted unless you first take a look at the spaces electrical work will be taking place and the kinds of work being tasked. In some instances, risk can be eliminated through other protective methods such as de-energization, insulation, guarding or barricades. However, if risk cannot be eliminated through engineering controls or administrative controls, then personal protective equipment must be considered.  

For employees working in areas where there are potential electrical hazards, the employer must provide—and the employee must use—electrical PPE that is appropriate for the specific parts of the body to be protected and for the work to be performed.  

There are several categories of PPE that can be selected when working around electrical hazards, but for the purposes of this article we are going to dive into eye and face, hand and body protection. Each section will outline appropriate PPE based on standards and rules set forth by OSHA and other associations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).  

Eye & Face Protection 

Let’s start from the top down, shall we? According to OSHA 1910.335(a)(1)(v), shall wear protective equipment for the eyes or face wherever there is danger of injury to the eyes or face from electric arcs or flashes or from flying objects resulting from electrical explosion.

Do. When choosing proper PPE for electrical work, do select safety glasses or goggles that adhere to safety standards. ANSI/ISEA Z87.1-2020 recently underwent some changes for better protection for workers’ eyes. However, if employees will be exposed to electrical hazards like arc flashes, they should be outfitted with PPE that also adheres to NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. 

Don’t. The worst mistake that you could make when choosing PPE to protect the eyes and face is to underestimate the hazards. When working on energize parts the possibility of arc flash exists, other dangerous hazards could also include extreme heat, flying hazards and molten metal. Because of this, you should look to ensure that all PPE is durable, non-conductive, heat-resistant and provide deflection qualities.  

Hand Protection 

Employees who are working in electrical work are often using their hands as their main tool. Obviously, the hands are the most susceptible to electric shock and must be protected.  

Do. Do become familiar with the standards for protection when it comes to the hands. In OSHA’s 1910.137 standard on electrical protective equipment, OSHA recommends that leather protectors gloves should always be used in additional to rubber insulating gloves to provide additional protection against cuts, abrasions and punctures but is sure to remark that leather gloves alone should never be the only protection used against electrical hazards.  

Don’t. Don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of options out there. There are many types of gloves on the market with each one touting different features. Protective gloves can be categorized into six classifications, according to OSHA, with each classification based on the maximum usage voltage the gloves can provide protection for. To best protect workers from electrical shock or burns, you must be sure that the chosen PPE match up to the hazards. 

Protection for the Body 

While arc flash events can be few and far between, they can be catastrophic. Temperatures can reach an excess of 35,000 degrees during an arc flash event and even at temperature is much lower typical daily wear clothing would do little to protect the worker from being seriously injured. In fact, it could ignite and burn the skin long after the arc flash has dissipated. It is because of this that workers will need flame resistant clothing. 

Do. When outfitting employees with FR clothing, you must ensure that the items are comfortable. We have seen all too often a worker decide to shed their protective items because they have limited mobility, are too hot or just feel like they are uncomfortable in their PPE. An arc flash can happen in seconds, and workers must be wearing their FR clothing items the entire shift to ensure they are protected. 

Don’t. Just because you have never seen an arc flash before, don’t think it will never happen at your facility. To ensure that employees are always protected, stress the importance of wearing FR clothing during a worker’s entire shift. Employees can layer FR items over their daily wear to ensure they are protective in the worst possible scenario. 

Protection Doesn’t Stop at Selection 

After you have selected the proper PPE for protecting against electrical hazards, you have to inspect each item before work begins. PPE that has been worn down, torn or scratched may be indication that it has come to the end of its life cycle and needs to be replaced.  

For FR clothing, employees must understand that proper care of their garments will extend the life of the clothing. FR clothing must not be washed with fabric softeners, starches or bleaches and you should always launder these items separate of other clothing.  

Employee protection again all hazards is the number one priority. Ensure you are doing everything you possibly can to eliminate hazards from the workplace, but when you cannot, top-tier PPE can be chosen to help. 

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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