When it comes to having you work on electrical equipment there are essentially four choices your employer could make. The first is to design or substitute out electrical hazards so that you are not exposed to voltages above 50 volts or incident energies above 1.2 cal/cm2. The second is to follow NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace® and establish an electrically safe work condition (ESWC). The third is to properly justify the need for the work to be conducted while energized then follow the requirements of NFPA 70E. The fourth is to conduct unjustified energized work. Here are some of the outcomes I have been made aware of when an employee was working under each situation.
The first option. Unfortunately, this is not something that can occur with a majority of electrical equipment. I have never heard of an employee being injured by electricity when there were no electrical hazards present for the given situation. However, with the shock hazard being above 50 volts there are circumstances that a shock hazard could exist in other circuits that I have not had to deal with. I am aware of situations where energy levels below the arc-flash hazard of 1.2 cal/cm2 have caused minor burn injuries to employees who were not wearing a long sleeve shirt or gloves. With the use of correct equipment and clothing there should be no injuries under this option regardless of low voltage or incident energy levels. A secondary method of eliminating electrical hazards is through an ESWC. I have never heard of an employee suffering an electrical injury when working on equipment placed into an ESWC.
The second option. The best outcome is that no employee was subjected to a shock or arc-flash incident while establishing an ESWC. The procedure went smoothly and the equipment was put into an ESWC. On the other end of this is that something went wrong while establishing the ESWC. However, with everything else being in accordance with NFPA 70E, the employee suffered no injury and in other cases a minor injury. Once an ESWC was established, no employee has been injured.
The third option. In many cases, a qualified worker was not injured while performing justified energized work. Things begin to go downhill from here. There is potential for an incident even when all the protections required by NFPA 70E have been done correctly. One outcome involves an incident occurring during the task but the equipment and protective devices provided protection for the employee. After this, the best outcome of an incident was that the PPE fully protected the employee from physical injury. The next best outcome was that the PPE performed as designed and limited the injury to one of lesser severity.
The fourth option. This one is wide open since it does not follow NFPA 70E or OSHA regulations. At extreme end of this option is there is absolutely no attempt at safety. Employees have worked bare handed on energized electrical equipment without an injury while other employees have been killed. Sometimes under this option there is a perceived safety culture. When you don’t follow industry standards while suggesting that safety is a concern many things can go wrong. Even when an employee wears PPE in accordance with the equipment label, severe injuries and fatalities have occurred when everyone has assumed that everything is being done correctly. Equipment has been improperly labeled or inappropriate PPE has been specified. Cutbacks on maintenance or components have made even normal operation a risk. Deaths and injuries have occurred when the safe practices have slowly eroded such as when short cuts are taken because nothing happened to the employee the last time. Employers have supplied the worker with sub-standard, counterfeit, or inappropriate PPE. These pseudo safety cultures are arguably the worst of all since there was an assumption that safety was a concern when it actually was not.
Unjustified energized work, poor work practices, improper or lack of training, etc. generate the highest employee injury and fatality rates. Wouldn’t you rather do everything possible to increase the odds that you will be returning home at the end of the day? Other than eliminating the hazards or after an ESWC has been properly established, there is a risk of injury to you, the employee. When you are conducting justified energized electrical work you are finding ways to minimize that possibility. What you and your employer do, and how you and why you do it does matter when you are at risk. Choose the safe way to do something. If you work in a facility as in the fourth option, it is only a matter of time before you or someone you know will be added to the injury or fatality statistics.
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Next time: Using the hierarchy of risk controls when establishing an electrically safe work condition.