Basic Electrical Safety in the Workplace

We use electricity every single day we go to work, and maybe even more so when we decide to stay home. Electricity is very powerful and allows us to do work up to levels never dreamed of in the centuries leading up to its discovery. With that said, it remains a dangerous source of power that should be respected and approached with extreme caution. Over the past decade, more than 46,000 employees have suffered electricity related injuries or deaths, making it a highly potent source of workplace accidents – especially in construction and outdoor industry where these and other related sectors suffer from a disproportionate amount of injury due to accidental contact with power lines. According to ReliablePlant.com, a worker somewhere in the United States is injured every 30 minutes to such an extent that off the job recovery is needed before they can return to work. Indoor or outdoor, construction or otherwise, electrical safety is still something you need to consider when planning out the overall safety of any business.

How Electricity Works

Ready for a quick physics / chemistry lesson? Atoms of any element are made up of a set number of neutrons, electrons, and protons. Electrons, which have a negative charge, counteract the protons, which have a positive charge, in any atom to give it an overall charge of zero – we’ll forget about neutrons, ions, etc. for now and not go too high school on you. Electricity, in it’s simplest form, is simply those negatively charged electrons being forced through a material. These materials are called “conductors,” and we learn growing up that some materials are better conductors than others. Rubbers and plastics generally conduct poorly, while water-based fluids and metals conduct well (electricity moves through them easily and with out much resistance). Materials with super-low conductivity can be used as insulators; these stop or help deaden the flow of electricity.

Why is it important you know this? At a technical level, it’s not, but a basic understanding can help you get a grasp on which machines and apparatuses in your workplace pose the most threat to your workers, and how you can adequately address them.

Starting With Your Circuit Breaker

Circuit panels, or circuit breakers, exist in all modern homes and business with electricity. This paragraph from Safety Toolbox Talks’ is a quick and dirty rundown of electricity and circuit breakers helps to explain exactly how a breaker works:

[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”SafetyToolBox- Understanding Electricity Breaker Panels” quotestyle=”style02″]Each circuit breaker and circuit is rated for a maximum amount of amperes. An ampere is the unit for measuring the rate of flow of electricity through the circuit. If the rate of flow in the circuit exceeds the designated maximum for the breaker, the breaker “trips” and stops the flow of electricity.[/sws_blockquote_endquote]

By nature, circuit breakers need to be able to trip themselves when overloaded, which makes the common action of taping or forcing a sensitive breaker into place a dangerous practice. Overloaded breakers that are not allowed to trip can cause fires, damaged machinery, injuries, melted circuitry, and, given proper conditions, arc flash explosions and other devastatingly dangerous situations for your workers. As with any electrical defect, a sensitive or constantly tripping circuit should be inspected and repaired by a professional to head off any future catastrophe.
In addition, circuit breakers should never be forced and any exposed elements from a broken plastic covering panel or switch need to be covered temporarily and then fixed immediately to avoid potential electrical shocks. Keep pathways to and around a circuit breaker clear so that the panel can be easily accessed at any time, especially in case of emergency.
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Locking & Tagging

If those electrical professionals are in-house, or if you have a business in which the electrical service of machinery by your own (properly trained) employees is commonplace, you’re likely familiar with the lock and tag system. A lock and tag system is used to prevent injuries when workers are working on exposed electrical systems. A lock, usually a ring of some sort (like this one), is placed in such a way to prevent the flipping of a switch or turning of a dial that would bring power to the machine or system being worked on. A red tag (similar to these tags) is then attached to the locking device to indicate to other workers that maintenance is being done and power needs to remain off. Notes about who is working and how long repairs or upkeep are expected to take are useful pieces of information to be included on the tag.

Locking and tagging systems are widely used in industrial facilities and work well as long as:
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  • ALL possible power points for a machine or electrical system are locked and tagged.
  • Workers are properly trained on how to use, recognize, and respect the system.
  • Other methods, such as taping a circuit switch “open,” should never be used as quick alternatives to the real deal.

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Additional Measures

Workers should be trained on the above material, but should also know your exact policies on what they’re allowed to tamper with and when, especially in the case of a machine malfunctioning and needing attention. Personal protection equipment, made of insulating material, should be worn when working on electrical systems. Also, all worn machinery, guards, and any case in which circuitry is or could become exposed in the near future should be reported immediately for maintenance scheduling.

Keep your workers informed and stay on top of maintenance supervision, just as in any other aspect of safety, and you’ll be well on your way!

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