The Evolution of Electrical Safety Training in a Time of Social Distancing

By Derek Vigstol, Contributor

During a presentation I gave last year at the IEEE Electrical Safety Workshop, an attendee asked me what I thought the biggest obstacle was facing electrical safety training. At the time, I believed one of the largest roadblocks to training workers exposed to electrical hazards was a long-standing industry culture and mindset that training is just a hoop we have to jump through. One week later, the world found itself in the middle of a global health crisis. Many of us, deemed non-essential workers, saw our businesses and jobs shift to a work-from-home option or shut down completely to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, other jobs such as maintenance personnel and those in skilled trades were deemed essential and had a mountain of work on their plates. For many of those deemed “essential” this meant being exposed to both a health crisis and the everyday hazards that accompany their jobs, such as shock and arc flash.

To further compound the danger, many of the tasks essential employees perform were labeled urgent or of an emergency nature which led to time pressure and stress on the worker; both major error precursors in considering human performance during risk assessments. This combination of already hazardous work and urgent deadlines meant for those doing this work the need to be thoroughly trained in identifying the hazard and the appropriate measures to reduce the risk was greater than ever. There was just one problem; how in the world could we deliver the required electrical safety training for this kind of work in a far-from-normal environment?

Online Options

One option was for workers to take self-paced online programs on electrical safety topics, like NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. Many programs that fit this description have existed for years. However, this type of training has received a fair bit of criticism due to OSHA’s many letters of interpretation on self-paced online learning. For those not familiar with what OSHA requires, here is a quick summary: OSHA requires that if training is required, the employer provide that training to each affected employee; OSHA requires that any employee who is exposed to a risk of electric shock be trained in electrically safe work practices (and they have also provided a handy little table of job roles that fit the bill in 1910 subpart S).

It is safe to say that electricians, HVAC technicians, maintenance personnel, and the like are all required to be trained in electrical safety. When personal computers started becoming more popular in the mid-90’s, many started to wonder if training could take place on these devices. Questions about online training soon made it to OSHA and warranted a response from the director of the office of health enforcement. While the intent of the question did not specifically pertain to electrical safety, the answer clearly did. OSHA stated that self-paced computer-based training could be a valuable part of an overall training program, but by itself would not satisfy the training requirement. Fast forward to 2019 and the same response was given to a similar question. However, the 2019 response went a bit further: it stated that the student needs to interact with an instructor and gain hands-on experience to really master the skills being taught.

What OSHA intended for the requirement was for employees to learn from someone with more experience and knowledge until they have mastered the skill themselves. Pretty straight forward, right? After all, this learning model has been the cornerstone of the skilled trades for years. But what about during a pandemic? How can a worker get on-the-job experience in this time of social distancing and limited interaction between employees and instructors? Relying on long-established learning models to deliver electrical safety training would not work in this new reality. While certain exceptions were being made in other areas because of the pandemic, thankfully occupational safety was not one of them. Employers could not simply roll the dice and hope it all worked out for the best. So where could employers turn to find electrical safety training for their employees when in-person training was gone and online was not enough by itself?

New Training Methods

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, NFPA was working on new and innovative ways to provide training to workers. When the lockdown began in early 2020, we set out to deliver the same impactful learning experience  that participants received by attending our in-person seminars but in a virtual format. However, this was not as simple as turning on a Zoom meeting and teaching a class. There was a bit of work to do to figure out how to convert our existing two-day 70E seminar into a virtual experience. Things like applications activities, open-ended Q&A sessions with the instructor, and sharing of personal experiences are all teaching tools that work much better in a physical classroom. To help translate this to a virtual classroom, we needed engagement tools that could fit into a seminar format and encourage attendees to voice their opinions and thoughts. Timing was also an issue. A training that is too short would take too many sessions to cover the needed information but too long of a training and attendees might start to get distracted and answer emails or perform other tasks during the session. Either of these would not create that learning experience that OSHA states is necessary for the worker to master the skill of electrical safety. Still another angle we considered was offering smaller focused training sessions. NFPA developed two such options; one on the changes to NFPA 70E from the 2018 to 2021 editions; the other on how a worker can effectively apply the PPE Category method from NFPA 70E for selection of arc flash protective equipment. The latter seeks to teach the selection of arc flash PPE as a skill instead by guiding the learner through the process.

Even with the many adaptations that have come out of this challenging new environment, we are still missing the practice element. To date, there is yet to be a substitute for good old fashioned hands-on experience. However, there have been a number of advancements in the safety training realm that might prove crucial in this social distancing age we now live in. Virtual reality (VR) helps workers practice certain tasks and skills without actually being exposed to a real hazard. Augmented reality (AR) takes things a step further and allows a knowledgeable instructor to be riding shotgun with the person learning so that he/she can immediately get the information they need about the task or equipment with which they are about to engage. While both these methods are still facing an uphill climb before they reach mainstream status, I think it is safe to say that the cat is out of the bag on the value these technologies can bring to an employer’s training program. It is just a matter of time before VR and AR are a full-blown part of every worker’s day to day.

There is no question that the pandemic has taken many of us by storm and has redefined much of our business as usual, but we don’t have to let this minor setback change who we are. Remember, the electrical industry has evolved from a few light bulbs and industrial motors in a few select buildings to a world where we can install light fixtures and overcurrent devices that can talk to each other and control other systems within the building automation network. We are an industry of the best and the brightest, of problem solvers and pioneers. I have faith that the lessons learned through adversity during the last year will lead to giant leaps in protecting workers from the hazards that working with electricity leads to. However, it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach. This is not a problem for a single person or organization to tackle. Like NFPA’s slogan says, “It’s a big world, let’s protect it together!” We have come a long way in the last few years with respect to electrical safety, so let’s go the distance and make a pledge to work together to achieve zero deaths 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).