A call came in from an employee who had been highly involved in electrical safety. Education and off-site training, some on his own dime and time, created an employee who knew the requirements of OSHA and NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®. With self-made work permits and a firm grasp on what a normal operating condition involves, this employee was better prepared for electrical safety than most others. As a contract employee, his company sent him to a host employer site. As expected, the host wanted the work to be conducted while energized. The equipment was not maintained and neither was other equipment in same location. This nearby equipment was not in a normal operating condition and posed a significant arc-flash risk, which was more probable than for the tasked equipment. A second task on another piece of equipment revealed once again that energized work was expected. Although he had taken chances in the past, this was not something he was willing to do this time. The risk was not worth it (as if the risk ever should be).
This contract employee pointed out that the lack of maintenance of all equipment in the area put employees at risk of injury. The host employer stated the other equipment in the area should not be considered in the risk assessment. Even when it was pointed out that normal operation of that equipment was a risk, the host employer re-emphasized that it should not be a concern for the contractor. Then the contract employee pointed out that all boundaries of exposed energized parts must be considered, not just that of the assigned part. Once again, the host stated to ignore those other parts.
The employee wanted confirmation from me that an energized work permit was necessary and that all boundaries had been considered. He wanted something from NFPA which could be given to the employers. He wanted to do things right and he wanted to be safe. I ran through the need for proper justification for energized work (host employer refused to provide), an energized work permit (host employer refused to sign), and proper risk assessments (host employer refused to accept). I brought up the federal and state regulations for workplace safety (host employer wasn’t concerned). I mentioned the requirements in NFPA 70E for host and contract employer responsibilities (host employer ignored those that affected their plan for unjustified energized work). The contract employer sided with the host employer. There was nothing I could provide that would change the mind of the employers. Until an employee is killed or injured to the point that requires an OSHA visit, there will be no change at this host site. The host and contract employers are the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) who are responsible for enforcing the electrical safety requirements. What is an employee to do when the AHJ ignores safety requirements? What would you have done?
It is beyond comprehension that so much effort is exhausted to avoid methods necessary to keep an employee safe. It is frustrating when someone is willing to risk the welfare of another. What will make them see the error of their ways? Should the CEO or acting AHJ be forced to stand next to an employee while the unjustified, energized work is performed? Could an employee shut the equipment off under the guise of human error because energized work does not guarantee continued operation? Could the work be delayed until the equipment fails? In the real world something needs to be done. I do not have the answer when willful disregard for safety is so prevalent.
The pressure to perform the work was immense. In this case, the employee was not willing to do what was demanded rather than do what was safe. This employee made a hard decision to choose safety over a paying job (it also makes me wonder how bad the situation actually was). That takes a commitment few have, especially when management is against safety and change. Which would you have chosen?
The contract employer should have supported the employee, but in many cases revenue plays a major factor in what an employer considers to be a safe task or low risk for an employee. Another company would do the work if his company would not. Unfortunately, a discussion between the two employers led to the replacement of this employee. The replacement person was assigned the task even with the knowledge passed on by the other. Hopefully, this replacement employee was not added to injury or fatality statistics. Would you have been the replacement employee?
For more information on 70E, read my entire 70E blog series on Xchange.
Next time: Do not sweat the small stuff.