Future Shock: As the World Goes Electric, Workers Must Be Protected
By Kevin Pietras, Contributor
Electrification is a vital path toward a cooler planet. Widespread electrification could rapidly decarbonize the world by moving it away from fossil fuels.
U.S. carbon emissions could be cut up to 80% by 2035 through swift deployment of existing electrification technologies. McKinsey estimates that half of the fossil fuels used to generate power by industrial companies could be replaced with electricity using technology available right now. Electric vehicles are showing the way as well. Electric vehicle registrations in the U.S. rose 60% in the first quarter of 2022, while total new car registrations fell by 18%.
But the shift to electrification comes with caveats, particularly in the area of safety. As a wide range of factories and industrial parks transition to electrification for their power needs, they will come up against electrical hazards. This will mean more high-voltage electrical lines, and these lines will pose a risk to workers of shock, burns and, in the worst case, fatal electrocution. Already, there are around 30,000 electricity shock incidents and 350 job-related deaths caused by electricity in the U.S. every year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
As more industries move to electrification, electrical incidents will inevitably rise, and safety measures will be required to mitigate them. That means proper protection will be vital for the increasing number of workers working with electricity every day.
Handling Electricity Safely
Workers typically come into contact with electricity through their hands. Injuries happen when they’re not wearing the correct gloves. There are three types of hand and arm protections generally used by workers: insulating rubber gloves, leather glove protectors, and insulating rubber sleeves.
Insulating rubber gloves can provide excellent protection against shocks and burns. They do it by blocking the transit of electricity from a source to the wearer. Insulating rubber gloves come in a variety of lengths and hand sizes and deliver various levels of voltage protection by ASTM Class.
When choosing gloves for a job, workers must be aware of the voltage they’ll be handling and select their gloves accordingly. Gloves come marked with a voltage rating. In compliance with ASTM standards, the lowest is class 00, which provides resistance up to 500 volts of alternating current (AC) and is proof tested to 2,500 volts of AC and 10,000 volts of direct current (DC). The highest is class 4, which provides resistance up to 36,000 volts of AC and is proof tested to 40,000 volts of AC and 70,000 volts of DC.
Rubber gloves should never be worn without protectors to reduce risk of accidental punctures during a job. Leather provides an essential additional layer of protection on top of insulating rubber gloves. Leather glove protectors can prevent rubber gloves from being torn, cut, or punctured. There should be emphasis here on “additional.” Workers should not use leather glove protectors as their only layer of protection or they may be seriously injured, even killed. It’s imperative that workers choose and correctly use and maintain the proper protective equipment according to the application and voltage they are working with.
Many workers, such as lineworkers for electrical utilities who come into contact with power lines on the job, need extra protection. For them, insulating rubber sleeves are necessary at a minimum to protect their arms from the wrist to the shoulder in case of accidental arm contact with lines, conductors, and other sources of current. Many utilities and contract workers are adapting rubber sleeves as a standard part of their required PPE programs for lineworkers.
Protecting Workers from The Ground Up
Protective footwear is another important element in guarding workers against shocks, burns, and electrocution. The footwear provides insulation if a worker steps on an electrified line or in electrified water. People who work around electricity also face a less-recognizable risk called “step potential.” When current flows from a source across soil or flooring, it spreads out in concentric circles. If a worker has one foot in a circle with higher voltage and the other foot in a circle with lower voltage, the electricity will instantly balance by flowing through the worker’s body. The worker can be electrocuted without ever stepping on the electricity source or in electrified water.
In all of these situations, electrical workers should have on dielectric footwear for protection. This footwear comes in different shapes and sizes, from dielectric boots to overboots, to overshoes, which are made fit over daily work boots.
Arc flashes are explosions of current escaping a source and traveling to another conductor or to the ground. They can reach temperatures of 20,000 degrees Celsius, which is almost four times the temperature on the surface of the sun. Workers caught in an arc flash may suffer external burns, internal burns, lung damage from inhaling hot gasses, hearing damage, eye damage, blindness, or death. Around 2,000 workers a year are admitted for treatment of severe burns caused by arc flashes every year, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Arc flashes happen when there is a short circuit and electricity bursts from its planned path. Given the heat of arc flashes, workers in situations with the potential for an arc flash—such as the repair of an electrical panel—need PPE specially made to protect them.
This PPE must be head to toe. That means coats, bibs, or coveralls made of very heat-resistant materials. It also means arc flash hoods that cover the head and neck, as well as a hard hat and face shield. Face shields should have large, expanded viewing ranges, provide good visibility even in dim or dark rooms, and should have an anti-scratch, anti-fog coating. All arc flash PPE should meet the required calories-per-centimeter-squared rating in accordance with the NFPA 70E standard.
Caring for Protective Gear
Having the right PPE and knowing how to wear it are the first steps in worker protection. The next step is knowing how to take care of the PPE. Proper maintenance, including daily inspection and regular cleaning, is essential.
Cleanliness is essential to ensure that all protective equipment works as intended. Grease, oil, and dirt can inhibit the effectiveness of rubber so it’s critical that they’re not allowed to accumulate. Rocks, branches, and other sharp objects are common in places where people work with electricity, so workers should regularly check for tears and punctures that limit performance or leave PPE ineffective altogether.
PPE for electrical work must also fit the people who wear it. If it’s heavy, cumbersome, and limits mobility, workers are less likely to use it. Too often, PPE is ignored because it hinders productivity. This is why more companies are now investing in PPE that’s made with the user experience in mind. And it is why manufacturers are producing better electrical PPE products for all use cases, from more supple gloves to clothing made of moisture-wicking materials that offer enhanced breathability.
The world is shifting to electrification in the fight against global warming and electrical workers are on the front lines, building out the grid and maintaining infrastructure. They need access to the right equipment to keep themselves safe—and keep the planet safe from climate change. ESW
Kevin Pietras is the Director of Offering Management, Honeywell Electrical Safety (https://sps.honeywell.com/us/en)
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