Four steps to a sound electrical safety culture

Training makes a difference, and so does communication.

By Eddie Jones, P.E. May 10, 2019

It’s a new engineer’s first day on the job and a piece of the electrical system is not performing the way it should be. The manager asks the engineer to troubleshoot the issue, unaware the engineer has had no safety training. Afraid to appear they don’t know what they are doing, the engineer approaches the equipment without any protective gear to see what’s happening. We all know this could result in a serious injury, maybe even death — and this is more common in electrical facilities than one may think.

Despite the common understanding of prioritizing safety, electrical safety is still a workplace issue. Hazardous energy and lockout/tagout (LOTO) is fifth among safety violations cited by OSHA in 2018. However, restrictions on time and resources may lead employees to be less diligent as they should be in mitigating safety risks throughout their work day. And when safety is put second, electrical facilities can take big hits with respect to their employees and to profitability.

To keep electrical facilities running smoothly and efficiently, it is critical that facility managers and staff create a strong culture of safety for employees at every level. Proper training, top to bottom messaging, compliance checks and more can guarantee that employees are aware of how to work safely.

Facility staff needs to establish a solid culture that will keep everyone safe. Here are four ways to accomplish this:

1. Establishing safety at EVERY level. Although engineers and electricians are the people who work most closely with electrical systems, everyone from top to bottom should be well versed in the proper safety protocols. Managers should encourage their staff to take their time when completing tasks to ensure they are adhering to the proper safety procedures.

Enforcing this and practicing it themselves will prove they are as committed to best safety practices as they want their employees to be. The single most important thing an employer can do is to empower employees to do the right thing, even if it means stopping work in an unsafe situation. Having the power to make these decisions can have positive impacts on their own and their coworkers’ safety.

2. Embedding proper communication in daily workflows. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, inexperienced employees may not fully understand safety protocols and may feel embarrassed to ask, making communication critical to ensuring effective safety measures. Managers are responsible for effectively communicating to their staff what components make up an established safety culture, and explaining the risks and penalties associated with poor safety adherence.

Program documents such as the Electrical Safe Work Practices (ESWP) Policy should be readily available for all employees to read about electrical safety practices such as lock out/tag out procedures, selection and application of PPE, methods of establishing a safe work area, arc flash and shock protection calculations and more. These program documents should be living documents that are reviewed and updated as required.

Safety audits are another way for managers to validate qualified personnel’s knowledge of safety protocols. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) defines a qualified worker 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 the hazards and reduce the associated risk.” These audits also determine whether or not an employee is familiar and complying with NFPA 70E.

Incorporating safety messages into team meetings also can drive home the importance of safety in an electrical facility.

If a near-miss incident occurs, managers may consider reviewing and discussing them with the larger group to identify the missteps and communicate how to effectively mitigate the risk in the future. A near-miss also provides an opportunity review whether the existing safety policies/procedures adequately address the situation or if they need to be revised.

3. Providing the proper defense equipment. Wherever an electrical hazard is present, facilities should have personal protective equipment (PPE) available to minimize harm during procedures. Having materials such as an arc-resistant shirt, pants or coveralls, or a multi-layer flash suit, flash hoods, voltage rated gloves and more can reduce safety risks. But employees should understand when and how to use PPE.

While it may be uncomfortable, there are some situations where it is absolutely imperative. Alternatively, it’s meant to be a last line of defense and it is the least effective risk mitigation control. PPE is designed to reduce burn injuries to be survivable, but employees may still suffer first- or second-degree burns.

4. Complying with the most recent codes. All electrical staff should be up-to-date on the most recent codes provided by the National Electrical Code (NEC) and the NFPA 70E. These codes provide guidance on best practices to keep staff safe and prevent dangerous events from occurring within a facility. Specifically, the NFPA outlines the hierarchy of risk controls including elimination, substitution, engineering controls, awareness, administrative controls and PPE. Additional articles within the code offer information about performing arc flash risk assessments and other protective measures.

Facility managers and staff must understand these codes are being upgraded continuously, with recent updates to the NEC incorporating additional energy reduction and documentation/labeling requirements.

The ultimate goal of safety only can be achieved when staff are committed to safety practices and are taking advantage of learning and communicating about safety on a continuous basis. Leveraging guidelines provided by OSHA, NEC and NFPA can lead facilities to become safer, but it will depend on the determination and actions taken by staff to create a truly safe facility.

Author Bio: Eddie Jones, P.E., is engineering manager for Schneider Electric Engineering Services.