Since May is Electrical Safety Month, it's time to ask the question: Is your workplace following the appropriate safety procedures? A few years ago, I took on some research into workplace electrical injuries sponsored by the Fire Protection Research Foundation. This work was requested by the technical committee for NFPA 70E: Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. After committee chair Dave Dini and I prepared a report of our findings (which drew largely on electrical injury data and OSHA incident reports) I realized that injuries were not happening as a result of any particular shortcomings in the formal standards for electrical safety. What we did discover was failure to apply basic safety precautions that are required in the workplace. Injuries were occurring when work was knowingly performed on or around equipment that was energized, usually needlessly so. Why was this happening?
There are multiple reasons for not following electrical safety procedures; there's possible fatigue that clouds decision-making, insufficient awareness of hazards due to inadequate training, and pressure to get the job done. Another contributor is routine shortcuts in safety protocols--or, deviations from safety protocols not recognized as deviant. If experience tells you that a formal safety procedure can be passed over with no bad result, there may be a temptation to treat it as superfluous. This judgment might be reinforced by others. The boundary between normal and deviant safety practices gradually becomes blurred and the deviation becomes acceptable -- at least until deviations from safety practice result in injury or death.
In her book The Challenger Launch Decision, sociologist Diane Vaughan described the “normalization of deviance” that contributed to the ill-fated launch of the Challenger space shuttle. For more on this term and its ties to electrical injuries, please read my column in Professional Safety. And keep your eyes peeled for additional reports on workplace electrical injury in the coming months.