Electrical Safety Finds Its North Star

By: Derek Vigstol, Contributor

The electrical safety program is our opportunity to develop a specific set of policies, procedures, and reference material that can keep employees safe from electrical hazards within our facilities.

For years, the electrical industry has sought answers to the ever-present question, “How do we balance the work we need to perform with our desire to stay alive and in one piece at the end of a shift?”

It wasn’t that long ago that our safety on the job was in our own hands with little more than the knowledge of previous generational experience to guide us through the perils that lie in wait for us when working with electrical systems. Of course, things have been improving significantly with the rise in popularity of NFPA 70E®: Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®. However, injuries and fatalities from electrical causes have plateaued in recent years, and while NFPA 70E has been a great starting point, it is time to find our true guiding star, the electrical safety program.

A company’s electrical safety program is not a new concept or idea by any means. Many employers have implemented wildly successful electrical safety programs over the years and many of these stellar plans have fed into the success and revisions of NFPA 70E itself. However, there are many out there that need some work yet. Let’s look at some of the common misconceptions when it comes to a company’s electrical safety program and how we can debunk some of these mistakes.

Common mistakes of an electrical safety program

First, it is not uncommon for companies to say, “Our electrical safety program is that we follow NFPA 70E.” This is relatively common among small to medium-sized employers that might not have anyone who fits in the full-time role of an OHS professional, and it is not unheard of for companies that do have a safety professional on staff. This is a relatively simple fix since they have already agreed that they are going to follow NFPA 70E. We simply need to point out that there are two sections in the document that require an employer to draft a program. Section 105.3 states that it is the responsibility of the employer to establish, document, and implement the safety-related work practices and procedures required by NFPA 70E, and 110.5(A) requires that the employer shall implement and document an overall electrical safety program. Therefore, if you follow NFPA 70E, you must develop an electrical safety program that is appropriate to the level of risk your employees are exposed to.

Another common pitfall that companies often fall into is this idea that if they simply never do energized work, their electrical safety program can simply be a statement like, “Employees shall not be permitted to perform energized work.” This mentality is dangerous and gives a false sense of security. The only way that this could even be a possibility is if the only work being performed is on systems that have yet to be connected to a source of electrical supply, and the worker will only use hand tools. This is not likely the situation and it is highly unlikely that we will enlist the help of the utility to unhook the building every time we need to work on or around electrical equipment. Even the act of placing equipment in a state where it is safe to work on is, in and of itself, an energized task since we must assume that equipment is energized until we have proven it is not through an absence of voltage test. So even to turn it off requires a plan on how we protect ourselves from the hazard present during this process.

The last pitfall that appears time and time again is that an organization will draft up an ESP in a vacuum and then mandate compliance with procedures and policies that create an attitude of contention among those that must put them into practice. This creates a situation within an organization where there is a storm brewing on the horizon that threatens the safety within the facility. It fosters thoughts where workers feel that the rules don’t make sense, and they often actively seek workarounds to what is in the program, or they simply just ignore the program all together. Often, the program is written with the best intentions in mind for safety, but when nobody follows it, the program becomes unworthy of the paper that it is printed on. And, when employees become willing to bypass the rules they don’t agree with, it opens the door for them to ignore the entire program itself.

Solutions to common mistakes

The question now becomes, “So what can we do to prevent this?” First, we need to take a long hard look at our electrical safety program, and if we don’t have one, that might be the first indication that we have some work ahead of us. But, if we have an ESP, let’s try and break it. Hiring an outside third-party to come poke holes in what we have in place and make recommendations for making improvements can help give us insights into where to focus efforts. Also, accept the fact that our employees will encounter electrical hazards from time to time, but stress that it is unjustified energized work that will not be allowed. This spins the “no energized work” mentality on its head a bit so that we can identify that there are times where we will be exposed, but only when it is necessary.

Remember, the electrical safety program is our opportunity to develop a specific set of policies, procedures, and reference material that can keep employees safe from electrical hazards within our facilities. This program should be written with this guiding light at its core. We can outline what specific tasks are permitted and which are not. We can outline specific procedures for placing certain equipment in an electrically safe work condition. It is our opportunity to take the generalized, industry consensus approach from within NFPA 70E and tailor it to our actual needs and provide a program that is better than simply following NFPA 70E. And we also can include our employees in the development of this program so that we ensure the policies and procedures written will make sense for how they are to be put into practice.

Lastly, we need to provide training on this program. It never fails while I am teaching a class for qualified persons that I will ask for a show of hands as to who has seen the company’s electrical safety program, and the response can usually be summed up as “crickets.” Rarely have I had a response that shows a commitment to ensuring that employees understand the principles, policies, and procedures contained within the program. It has happened, but it is more of the exception than the rule. My question for those workplaces that do not provide training based on their ESP is, “Why invest all of the time and energy into developing the program if you choose not to tell anyone about it?”

An electrical safety program can be all encompassing for what policies a company needs in place to reduce the risk to their employees from electrical hazards. If we give it the attention it needs and recognize where the pitfalls and common misconceptions exist. Form a committee, develop rules in accordance with the work to be performed on the equipment that exists, engage those doing the work, make an effort to discover the shortcomings of the program, and don’t forget to spread the message to all involved. If we keep these principles in mind, chances are we will develop our true North Star when it comes to keeping employees safe from the hazards that arise from our use of electricity in the workplace. ESW

Derek Vigstol is the Electrical Content Specialist for NFPA. Digital access to NFPA codes and standards, along with related information and insights like expert commentary, visual aids, and other relevant resources is available to help you work more efficiently, effectively, and safely at work (https://nfpa.org/link).

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