Five best practices for electrical safety on the plant floor

Here are five electrical safety best practices, centered on a broader effort to employ a culture of safety that can help put the right safeguards in place.

By Scott Dowell June 6, 2023
Courtesy: Wesco


Learning Objectives

  • Learn how a “find and fix” mentality can mobilize workers to identify electrical safety hazards before they become problematic.
  • Know why you cannot skimp on equipment safety checks.
  • Understand how training and communication play a critical role in putting a culture of electrical safety into action.

Electrical safety insights

  • Electrical safety hazards abound on the plant floor. But how do you protect employees from a risk that is a necessity to the work that needs to be done?
  • By implementing five things and adhering to OSHA and NFPA requirements, electrical safety can be achieved.

Electricity is one of many safety hazards in the plant. It is ubiquitous and nearly everyone has access to it and, as such, the risks can be wide-ranging and sometimes even downplayed. After all, without electricity a plant cannot operate. However, electricity’s presence poses a safety risk.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), electricity is one of the “Fatal Four” leading causes of fatalities in the workplace.

Electrical hazards on the plant floor abound. Electric shock, burns (electrical or thermal contact), explosions, electrical fires and indirect hazards (like falls) are all present and pose a real threat to employees. Most often, the causes of electrical accidents can be traced back to unsafe equipment due to aging, improper usage or faulty installation; workplaces made unsafe by the environment; and unsafe work practices.

OSHA’s efforts over the past 50 years have helped to decrease worker deaths and injuries — including such incidents resulting from electrical hazards — by more than 60% of what they once were. And yet, more than 5,000 people still die at work every year and another 3.6 million suffer a work-related injury.

Instead of viewing workplace safety through the lens of employee behavior and OSHA compliance, many organizations are building safety into the fabric of their company culture and prioritize the health and safety of employees.

These organizations understand the role they play in keeping their employees safe — on the plant floor and beyond — and are making specific investments to support the overall health and safety of their teams. Adopting this type of “people-first” strategy with safety at the forefront demonstrates to employees that their health and well-being is taken seriously and their employer is not simply trying to check off a list of necessary regulation requirements.

This level of commitment can have a significant ripple effect, increasing overall employee engagement, job satisfaction and a sense of community. Ultimately, this can help to strengthen the overall culture of an organization and given consumers’ socially conscious mindset in 2023, this type of initiative has important external implications as well.

Building a strong culture of safety takes buy-in from all levels of the organization. But regardless of where an organization may be in working to build a better culture of safety, understanding how to keep employees safe from electrical hazards on the plant floor is something that can be done and built upon for the future.

Here are five best practices to consider implementing immediately to ensure everyone on the plant floor is reducing their risk of electrical incidents.

Figure 1: Electricity poses a unique safety risk given it is used to power virtually everything on the plant floor. Courtesy: Wesco

Figure 1: Electricity poses a unique safety risk given it is used to power virtually everything on the plant floor. Courtesy: Wesco

1. Empower employees to be your eyes and ears

One of the simplest things to do to combat risks associated with electrical hazards and build a broader safety program is to implement a “find and fix” approach. This strategy empowers workers to serve as eyes and ears on the plant floor.

As a first step, coach workers on the details of what they are looking for so they can identify hazards that they may not have recognized otherwise. From there, outline a clear path for how hazards are to be communicated and handled when an issue is identified.

The “find and fix” mentality also allows employers to demonstrate their commitment to safety. When employees raise concerns over a hazard that has been identified, it gives the employer an opportunity to move swiftly to correct the issue and improve the overall safety of the operation.

2. Do not skimp on critical equipment electrical safety checks

There are several considerations pertaining to equipment that should be followed to help secure the safety of the plant floor:

  • Ensure the use of electrical protection devices. Electric equipment and installations have internal and external faults that can cause damage to people or other equipment. A “fault” is an abnormal condition caused by equipment failures such as transformers and rotating machines, human errors and environmental conditions. To avoid the faults (short circuits or overcurrents), enclosures, fuses, circuit breakers and ground fault circuit interrupters or other electronic protection devices can be used to help ensure an unnecessary amount of current doesn’t pass through. Equipment and systems should also be grounded to help control voltage within predictable limits.

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) is still in style. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 200 fatalities occur each year due to contact with electrical current. Before approaching electrical equipment and installations, make sure workers have the right PPE for the job. For example, proper arc-rated clothing is the best form of protection when performing live electrical work. Without the proper attire — such as hearing protection, face shields and leather footwear — risks are higher for serious injuries. One of the most important lines of defense when it comes to electrical safety is rubber goods. Rubber goods can include gloves, sleeves, boots, blankets, line hoses and more. OSHA upholds and enforces the way electrical work can be performed based on the standards issued by the ASTM F18 Committee.

  • Identify and label machine and equipment hazards. Safety labels are critical to warn of potential hazards on electrical panels, connected equipment and the surrounding areas. These labels typically include a safety message with a more detailed description. For instance, it might be known where an arc flash can occur, so labeling equipment with proper warning signs and instructions reduces risk. Clear markings will help to easily identify potential danger zones and prepare workers for a plan of action should an incident occur.

Beyond labeling potential hazards, ensure that mobile equipment is not stored in hazardous environments or in a line of where employees walk. Confirm that all cords are in a cool, dry space and out of the way of where employees are moving throughout the plant floor.

Figure 2: Electrical hazards can hide in plain sight. Implement a “find and fix” approach and let the employees be the eyes and ears of the manufacturing facility. Courtesy: Wesco

Figure 2: Electrical hazards can hide in plain sight. Implement a “find and fix” approach and let the employees be the eyes and ears of the manufacturing facility. Courtesy: Wesco

3. Only employ experts to deal with electrical systems

Many employees often do things that fall outside of their specific job description or role in the spirit of helping the team or company out. Normally, this is a great trait, except when it comes to things where associates are not qualified for the sake of the safety of ourselves and others. Plant engineers and managers do not see people who aren’t doctors offering to do “simple” medical procedures; there’s a reason for that. While that example seems obvious, trying to perform electrical repairs as a maintenance employee without electrician qualifications or certifications can be just as dangerous.

The word “qualified” is articulated differently in NFPA 70E: Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace compared to how it is used in other OSHA standards. According to NFPA 70E,

“A qualified person is 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 the hazards and reduce the associated risk.”

Unlike the OSHA definition of “qualified,” the NFPA 70E definition explicitly calls for the individual to have received safety training specific to the electrical hazards they may face.

This is just one example of why workers often get too close to live electrical components under the guise that they are “qualified” to proceed when in fact they are not. Remember that the employer, not the training course or instructor, must designate an employee as “qualified.” Clear communication on what scenarios are safe and are not in regards to a given electrical system must also be laid out ahead of time.

Figure 3: Ensure equipment is not stored in hazardous environments or in an area where employees frequent along the plant floor. Courtesy: Wesco

Figure 3: Ensure equipment is not stored in hazardous environments or in an area where employees frequent along the plant floor. Courtesy: Wesco

4. Lean on training to consistently reinforce electrical safety culture

Ensuring proper training is completed for electrical safe work practices, lockout/tagout, shock and arc flash hazard assessments and job hazard analysis is required by OSHA and NFPA 70E. These cannot be viewed as checkbox activities. Workers need to understand that the training provides them with the skills necessary to maintain a safe work environment, but to also return home safely.

Two specific types of important training include:

  • OSHA training: OSHA can issue criminal penalties in cases of extreme negligence on the part of the employer in the event of an employee injury or death. Recently, the operator and six management officials of a corn mill were indicted by a federal grand jury — in a case involving an explosion that killed five workers and injured 15 others — on nine criminal counts, including two counts related to willful violations of federal workplace safety standards for grain handling.These kinds of incidents are preventable. Implementing a safety and health program can help ensure a manufacturing company follows applicable OSHA regulations to help prevent injuries and deaths and reduce the risk of penalties.

  • Arc flash hazard training: Electrical workers face many dangers on the job, but few are more devastating than an arc flash. This electrical release of energy can be hotter than the surface of the sun, producing an explosion with the force of eight sticks of dynamite. It is estimated that 10 arc flash incidents involving more than one death occur every day in the U.S. But these troubling facts aren’t always enough to convince those involved to take the right precautions.

Before starting to address the issue on the job site, be sure to conduct a risk assessment for both arc flash and shock dangers. NFPA 70: National Electrical Code recommends arc flash tests every five years. Arc flashes threaten personnel safety and companies face lawsuits, fines, equipment damage, facility downtime and lost production. Minimize risks with proactive training and testing.

To engage employees in these trainings, consider safety awards for individual locations based on activity or training topic and incorporate related key performance indicators to actively engage workers and encourage participation. Prioritizing and incentivizing training demonstrates a company commitment to creating a culture of safety.

Advances in safety training will also give employers the ability to create consistent safety cultures across multiple locations and provide the tools that improve compliance and reporting. Virtual reality, for example, has great potential to change how training is delivered and change the training experience as a whole, making conducting training themselves even safer. By delivering virtual training, employees will not be exposed to the conditions that they need to be trained in, so training can be conducted in a safe place in an interactive way.

Figure 4: Many organizations are building electrical safety into the very fabric of their company culture as they prioritize the health and safety of all employees. Courtesy: Wesco

Figure 4: Many organizations are building electrical safety into the very fabric of their company culture as they prioritize the health and safety of all employees. Courtesy: Wesco

5. You cannot overcommunicate about electrical safety

Although many companies promote a commitment to safety, if the topic is not included in ongoing, strategic discussions among key stakeholders, this notion of commitment could ring hollow. Company priorities will change over time and focusing on the safety and security of workers should represent a core company value and be integral to every strategic discussion. This includes weaving in the notion of safety throughout key communications with plant floor workers.

Here are a few examples of how that can be done:

  • Identify opportunities to include safety-related updates, best practices and lessons learned in an internal newsletter or weekly email communication to keep workers apprised of new guidelines and underscore a company commitment to building and sustaining a culture of safety. Having timely access to information can increase the reach and coverage of safety programs and decrease the overall cost of those programs.

  • Be clear about existing workplace challenges teams may face. Engaging associates in this process will help effectively address red flags in a timely and thoughtful manner, ensure swift remediation and help avoid any future missteps related to known issues.

  • Implement tools to report near misses and leverage data to help continuously improve. Regular safety walkarounds across all locations can help more accurately track and analyze near misses and apply lessons learned to ensure the safety and security of all workers.

In today’s business environment where global competition is fierce and skilled labor is a challenge, there should be no greater priority than ensuring the safety and security of workers. Electrical systems do pose a unique risk given they are used to power virtually everything on the plant floor.

However, through a companywide effort to build a culture of safety and a practical approach to training, equipment and personnel, organizations can provide the framework needed to ensure electrical hazards are minimized and employees are safe.

Author Bio: Scott Dowell is Senior Vice President and General Manager, Industrial and CIG, at Wesco. He has more than 25 years of experience and leads the strategy, execution and growth of Wesco’s industrial, automation, institutional and government end-user business throughout the United States.