Adopt prevention through design for electrical safety

Leaders and managers need to implement a proactive prevention through design (PtD) program and track near misses to mitigate electrical safety hazards and protect workers in their plant

By Marty Kronz May 14, 2020

Modern manufacturing facilities need a comprehensive approach to its electrical safety program policies and practices. Creating a safe workplace requires rigorous enforcement of electrical safety standards and strict adherence to guidelines with close monitoring of industry best practices. Performing work without turning off power and verifying that a de-energized condition exists is a leading cause of electrical injuries. The Electrical Safety Foundation International statistics show that there were 2,210 nonfatal electrical injuries in 2017, an increase of 35% over 2016.

Workplace safety is always a top priority on the job and in the plant environment, but even with this focus and mindset, accidents happen. Typically, the response to electrical incidents and near misses is to propose more safety training, but training alone is not enough. It is crucial to incorporate design-first thinking to improve workplace electrical safety and accurately track near misses to see where opportunities for improvement exist. Leaders and managers need to implement a proactive prevention through design (PtD) program and track near misses to mitigate electrical safety hazards and protect workers in their plant.

The significance of PtD

As a principle, PtD is an achievable solution to improve worker health and safety, especially when it comes to electrical safety. Designing to reduce or eliminate hazards, before any electrical exposure happens in the workplace, should be a top priority for industry safety professionals and plant floor managers. PtD includes all efforts to prevent injuries by reducing exposure to hazards primarily through design efforts rather than administrative controls or personal protective equipment (PPE). It applies not only to products and equipment but also processes and procedures used on the plant floor.

The PtD concept is firmly taking hold within the safety and plant engineering community. Efforts are being made to increase its adoption through inclusion in standards. Every manufacturing process has many inherent safety risks. It is essential to identify and minimize potential hazards from the beginning.

With PtD, new technologies and products reduce human exposure to hazards to achieve higher safety levels, making electrical infrastructure safer for anyone entering the facility for the duration of its lifecycle. Product development by way of PtD also can simultaneously increase productivity, as it limits worker exposure to electrical hazards during routine maintenance and work activity while making the process faster and less complicated.

How PtD reduces workplace injuries

PtD begins with the process of identifying potential risks within a process or environment with the goal of eliminating that risk whenever possible. In cases where risk elimination is impossible or impractical, substitution (replacing the hazard) or engineering controls (isolating people from the hazard) is the most effective means to reduce workplace injuries (see Figure 1). Several PtD products have been developed to replace or isolate people from the risk, such as permanently mounted light curtains, data access ports, infrared (IR) windows for thermal Inspection and absence of voltage testers (AVTs).

The process of de-energizing and verifying equipment in an electrically safe work condition before beginning work can help prevent electrical incidents. AVTs are the only permanently mounted testing devices specifically designed with this in mind by determining if a circuit part is de-energized before opening panels or removing covers to access and maintain electrical equipment. The AVT not only reduces the risk of exposure to electrical hazards but also simplifies the traditional, time-consuming, handheld equipment process to a reliable, single push-button action.

AVTs help improve electrical safety by way of a PtD approach and are an ideal preventive option for plant floor maintenance and reliability professionals, their staff and safety professionals (see Figure 2).

It is beneficial to examine whether absence of voltage testing can be optimized using PtD methodology because of how frequently it is done in the manufacturing workplace. Every safety and plant floor manager’s top priority is to provide a workplace free from serious safety and health hazards, as well as ensuring the workplace is in compliance with applicable standards, rules and regulations to maintain safety in their manufacturing facility. Safety managers today are challenging electrical infrastructure suppliers to create dependable methods of identifying and verifying de-energized electrical equipment.

Near miss reporting is an essential tool

According to IEEE, “a ‘near-miss’ is generally defined as an unplanned incident that did not, but had the potential to, result in an injury.” In an electrical safety environment, this would be an incident where a potentially life-threatening or fatal shock, arc flash, arc blast, electrical fire, etc., could have taken place. These misses are valuable information resources for plant and safety management.

So why do so may near misses go unreported? One main reason is company culture. It is the responsibility of plant and safety managers to establish a welcoming safety culture on the plant floor. Some best practices include posting and explaining the definition of a near miss, reporting on not only incidents but near misses and communicating them as lessons learned and immediate and simple recording processes so near misses do not get lost in that day-to-day.

What should companies do once an electrical near miss occurs and is reported? Companies with active safety cultures often have a “work-stop” meeting where the employees and managers discuss the near miss, why it happened and how it can be prevented in the future. When floor employees are trained in root cause analysis (RCA), these conversations often are led by the floor employees and are more productive. This employee and manager team approach goes a long way in nurturing a positive safety culture. It also empowers the floor employees to be responsible for their safety, gives them the tools to report near misses and a sense of ownership in eliminating the hazard.

These conversations should guide plant and safety managers to establish new safety processes and use them as an opportunity to apply and use PtD principles. But the safety mindset must not stop there — following up on near misses, regularly auditing equipment, job plans and procedures are essential to making sure a culture of safety “sticks” with the employees.

The importance moving forward

Worldwide, industry implementation of PtD and reporting near misses still has room for improvement. Adopting and nurturing an environment that promotes safety culture that encourages near miss reporting is a key to identifying PtD opportunities.

Plant management’s role in the PtD process is obvious: Establish a motivational force to promote designing for safety and protect workers by implementing solutions that help reduce exposure to hazards throughout their facility. PtD methodology can be applied to existing tools, equipment and processes, but addressing safety early in the design process is more economical and should be the first option explored.

Safety pays when it comes to plants and factories. Electrical injuries account for one of the highest average workers’ compensation costs, with sources indicating the average direct cost of an electrical injury ranges from $50,000 to $80,000. The indirect loss can even exceed this by four times because of the ensuing property damage and repair and lost productivity. Approaching a total cost of $500,000, companies should think twice about how effective their safety program, procedures and tools are.

Because of PtD and the adoption of near miss reporting, the safety culture is changing. New technology like AVTs will continue to play an important role in electrical hazard reduction strategies for plants worldwide.

Author Bio: Marty Kronz is a product engineer for AutomationDirect, and is a BSME graduate of Brown University. His 30+ years of experience in the industrial/electrical market includes mechanical, electrical, and functional safety product/tooling design, product management, and business development.