Electrical Safety Never Takes A Holiday
By: Dennis Bordeaux | May 24, 2017
May is designated as Electrical Safety Month and many organizations and employers take advantage of the focus on electrical safety to emphasize the importance of following safe working practices when working around energized equipment. The month of May is fast passing and the Memorial Day holiday is approaching, but we must never allow our electrical safe working practices to take a holiday, not even a day off. Day in and day out the hazards associated with working around energized electrical equipment remain present. Those hazards never take a holiday, so neither can our electrical safety procedures. Designating May as Electrical Safety month is a good reminder, but electrical safety is important all year long.
An example is provided by a report of an electrical fire in a bowling alley. An untrained person was tasked with installing some filler blanks where circuit breakers were missing in a panelboard. A simple task that certainly needed to be done; if the filler blanks are not installed, the energized bus bars are exposed. What can go wrong? We all know the answer. A lot! Apparently, while installing the filler blanks a short circuit was created across the bus bars resulting in an arc flash. Fortunately, no serious injury resulted, but the panelboard was destroyed. The bowling alley was out of business for several days until the electrical system was repaired, so employees likely lost a few days wages as well. It could have been much worse.
The NEC includes many reminders to help us remember the importance of following safe work practices. Signage requirements in 110.16 are intended to WARN qualified persons of potential arc flash hazards. Article 690 requires numerous WARNING signs to remind us of the hazards specific to PV systems including new signage requirements for Rapid Shutdown systems. The entrance to rooms or enclosures containing equipment operating at over 1000 volts are required to be kept locked and marked with conspicuous DANGER-HIGH VOLTAGE-KEEP OUT signs to inform both qualified and unqualified persons of the hazard. These and the numerous other CAUTION, WARNING and DANGER signs required by the NEC are intended to provide that final opportunity to remember and follow safe working practices.
But, human nature often chooses an easier path. Even qualified persons are sometimes tempted to take shortcuts, but what makes a person qualified to work around energized electrical equipment in the first place? Experience? Training? Time?
The Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace (NFPA 70E) defines a qualified person as, “One who has demonstrated skills and knowledge related to the construction and operation of electrical equipment and installations and has received safety training to identify and avoid the hazards involved.” Obviously, the employee in the bowling alley was not able to identify and avoid the hazards involved.
Training is only part of the equation; an employee must demonstrate that the training had the desired effect by following safe working practices. The employee’s supervisor has a key role in verifying that the employee is applying what was learned in the classroom to real world situations. Was he or she paying attention during training, or were they sending text messages or thinking about their next work task? When did employees performing electrical work last receive training?
NFPA 70E requires retraining in safety-related work practices at least every three years. Three years is a long time. Even the most qualified person can develop bad habits, and we all need reminding from time to time. That is, after all, what all those warning signs in the NEC are about. What about unqualified persons? By definition, a qualified person is one who has received training and demonstrated the necessary skills. Does an unqualified person require training?
An unqualified person is still required by NFPA 70E to be “trained in, and be familiar with, any electrical safety-related practices necessary for their safety.” Virtually any maintenance technician is exposed to some level of electrical hazard and should receive the training necessary to avoid those hazards. As demonstrated by the employee in the bowling alley, unqualified persons should never be permitted to work on energized electrical equipment.
Some of our online continuing education courses cover NFPA 70E. May is a good reminder, but remember that electrical safety should never take a holiday.