Who And What Do You Trust with Your Electrical Safety?

By Mike Doherty, Contributing Writer

Qualified, competent, and knowledgeable electrical technicians, technologists, electricians, electrical engineers, and powerline technicians (as per their scope of work) deal with a toxic energy (some people describe as electricity) day in and day out while performing their tasks. When it comes to working on or near an energy source that can be so incredibly toxic to humans, you need to ask yourself if you are qualified to do this work, and, Who and what do I trust?

Do I trust the safety management systems that are in place where I work, if they even exist? Do I trust my managers and supervisors? Most importantly, do I trust myself to do the right thing regarding my own personal safety—especially when no one is around to see me working?

Do I trust the schooling and training I have received before entering the workplace and afterwards? Do I trust the LO/TO process and programs at my company or where I use them as a contractor to be robust and rigorous? Ask yourself, are the single lines accurate and up to date?

These are tough questions and, typically, everyone I have ever met has had different answers for different reasons.

For anyone in the electrical trades, or who is qualified to work with electricity, the reality is there are different levels of safety management systems, managers, supervisors, and tradespeople everywhere you go. The safety culture (or lack thereof) within your organization or that you have as an individual will most often determine just how effective/ineffective any of these things will be.

Every worker is an extremely valuable asset. Protecting that asset for the sake of themselves, their family, and friends—as well as those who pay their wages—is job number one. Deciding to take or bear inherent risks in electrical work is just not acceptable for anyone at any level in any business.

Reducing Risk

There are many things that can happen and break down during an electrical task, which can impact personal safety and/or the task itself in the blink of an eye. This toxic energy can be delivered to the worker by means of direct-contact shock and/or arc flash. The human body was never designed for these hazards.

Outstanding job safety planning executed by qualified and competent people will reduce the potential inherent electrical risks to residual levels for any task. While this is always the goal and expectation, it may not be a best practice in your job safety plan.

Electricity is invisible and needs to be identified as a potential lethal hazard to workers at every opportunity within the job safety planning and workflow process. One of the most critical and mandatory workplace electrical safety techniques is quite simply:

Verifying for the absence of voltage by using TEST BEFORE TOUCH (TBT).

Certainly, electrical work shall always be done in the electrically safe work condition unless it is “infeasible” to do so. (See Process for Establishing and Verifying an Electrically Safe Work Condition in Article 120.5 in NFPA 70E-21 and Clause 4.2.5 in CSA Z462-21)

TBT is simple, true, but its general concepts reveal more than meets the eye. Have you been trained to understand why TBT is mandatory in the electrical trades? Has this training been documented and captured in a Learning Management System (LMS) if your company has one? Does your safety managed system ensure that TBT is an embedded culture and risk-reduction control tool used All the Time, Every Time (e.g., regularly documented field audits by those accountable for verification) by all qualified employees and contractors?

Critically and foundationally do you consider all electrical parts to be energized until comprehensively tested “For the Absence of Voltage”?

Do you believe you need to test every single conductor that could possibly be contacted, even inadvertently, for toxic electrical energy? Anyone who has worked with electricity for some time can recount stories where the risk scenario was not as it first appeared. Have you for example ever opened a 480 / 600 volt disconnect and had “one blade” stay closed? Yes, it happens occasionally. Think about the consequences for those that don’t practice TBT or for those that supervise or manage these tasks?

Do you understand the PPE (personal protective equipment) that must be used for the equipment being tested, and use it without question all the time, every time? (Knowledge of that equipment is mandatory.) When the workflow is broken, whatever the reason, you need to start the TBT process anew. Ideally, this process is comprehensively confirmed by another competent, qualified person if possible. OSHA in the United States or Provincial regulators in Canada will be asking these questions, if need be, after significant incidents.

Do you clearly understand how your voltage detection device is to be used safely? Competent electrical tradespeople use the Live-Dead-Live technique all the time, every time. Do you perform comprehensive phase-to-phase, phase-to-ground, phase-to-neutral tests, and do you have a complete understanding of the equipment being tested? Reliable ground test points must be assured, and you should know, as just one example, that some fuses have insulated ferrules, if you test at that location, that may give you a false indication as to the lack of voltage.

So, ask yourself again: Who and what do I trust? If not yourself, then who? None of these best practices take long to get done, so ensure that not only you are doing them, but your work partners, too, and anyone who works with or for you all the time, every time.

If you’re not following even the simplest electrical safety best practice of Test Before Touch and Live-Dead-Live, then perhaps the real question you should be asking yourself is: What am I doing in the electrical sector? ESW

A subject-matter expert on electrical safety, Mike Doherty is an independent electrical safety contractor, consultant, trainer, and auditor. He is a licensed electrician, engineering technician and an IEEE senior member and served as the Technical Committee chair for CSA Z462 since its inception in 2006 until Dec. 2018 for the first 4 Editions and continues to serve on Z462. He has also served as a non-voting member of the NFPA 70E Technical Committee since 2007. Doherty is the current TC Chair of CAN/ULC S-801 – Transmission, Distribution and Power Generation Standard of Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the NESC in the U.S.A. His specialties include electrical safety and health & safety management, maintenance, consulting, training, auditing, and electrical incident investigations.

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