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Mitigating the Threat of Electrical Safety Hazards

Electrical safety hazards in the workplace present a threat to employees and business operation. The cost of a single incident can close the doors of a business or worse, cost human life. Proper processes and procedures can help protect your employees from the effects of electrical safety hazards, but how do you know the extent of your risk? Once you understand the risk, how do you mitigate?

 

Results of Electrical Hazards

A recent study compiled by the Electrical Safety Foundation International indicates there has been a fairly steady decline in non-fatal electrical injuries from 1992 to 2016. It noted construction and manufacturing as the industries with the greatest number of injuries. While the number of fatalities related to electrical hazards has also seen decline, the foundation reported more than 2,600 over the 14-year period.

The dangerous conditions that occur because of electrical hazards are shock, arc flash, and arc blast.

Shock

Shock occurs when a person comes in contact with an electrical current and completes the circuit loop. If you touch something containing an electrical charge, your body acts as a conductor for that charge to reach the ground. The severity of the shock is determined by the ampacity of the electrical current and the ease (or resistance) by which it can travel through the conductor – you. The greater the current and lack of proper personal protective equipment (PPE), the greater the risk and severity of shock.

A simple shock like releasing static by touching your car after exiting on a dry, cold day, presents no threat. However, working with live equipment (say 480 Volts) without proper personal protection equipment or work without planning for nearby conductors can pose a great threat to a person. Shock hazards can cause injuries ranging from respiratory paralysis to severe skin and organ burns to death.

Arc Flash

When the insulating medium no longer offers enough resistance to the flow of electric current, an arc can occur.  If enough electrical energy is present, this arc will ionize the air surrounding it causing a traumatic and explosive event called an arc flash.  This event can result in extreme temperatures (currently beyond the testing limits of most lab equipment), which may cause life changing human injury up to and including death.

The main risk associated with arc flash is ignition of polyester, cotton, or other non-flame-resistant clothing.  When this ignition occurs, the worker may receive significant burn injuries resulting in death or months in burn units.  Workers may also have vision loss or damage due to the immense light emitted in the visible, UV, and infrared spectrums.

Arc flash events may be the result of human error (i.e., dropping metal tools into the circuit or panel enclosures), equipment failure (i.e., a failed contactor), inadequately rated electrical test instruments (i.e., a ‘Wiggy’ or an inexpensive digital meter with inadequate fusing), poor craftsmanship (i.e., loose wire nuts or incorrect terminations), pest control issues (i.e., spider webs or rodents crossing phase conductors), and an innumerable assortment of other factors.

55% of low-voltage electrical injuries are the result of arc flash burns. Generally, these employees are hospitalized and unable to work for 9 to 15 weeks, and they may even result in fatalities.

Arc Blast

A large arc flash can result in an arc blast. The buildup of ionized gas and electrical current can create pressure in a contained environment which when released produces an extreme explosion like a pipe bomb. Simply put, kaboom.  These hazards are extremely dangerous and life threatening.  Proper PPE can provide a measure of protection against an arc blast. However, the best way to manage the risks of an arc blast event is to adopt procedures and processes to prevent it, and to utilize proper electrical preventative maintenance.

 

IDENTIFYING ELECTRICAL HAZARDS

Spotting potential electrical hazards in your facility may be easier than you think. Here are some of the most common visual indicators of electrical safety hazards:

Exposed Electrical Wires or Circuitry

Coming into direct contact with an electrical current poses a threat to a person. Sometimes improper maintenance can lead to easy or inadvertent contact with an electrical current, but most incidents that result from exposed electrical equipment are due to inappropriate work. Facilities like hospitals, laboratories, universities, and manufacturing plants can have critical operations that are difficult to shut down for electrical work and can often contribute to the risk of working with energized components

According to the study, “Occupational Injuries from Electrical Shock and Arc Flash Events,” conducted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation in 2015, performing work with live systems leads to a substantial share of electrical injuries in the workplace.

Poor Workmanship

From the system’s design to operation, all electrical professionals should bear in mind the health and safety of the end-user. If your system is improperly wired, has overloaded circuits, or even incorrect grounding it is at risk for an electrical hazard incident.

At first sight

Burnt wiring safety hazard

Bad wiring safety hazard

Incorrect wiring safety hazard

 

Unsafe Work Conditions

Most of the time unsafe work conditions are due to a lack of training or inadequate policies and procedures. People are unaware of the potential risk surrounding their daily work or they have gotten comfortable with unnecessary risk.  It’s important to not only equip employees with the knowledge, but also with risk assessment tools to ensure that workers are not performing tasks where risk could easily be mitigated with simple adjustments to their activities such as using insulated tools or wearing insulated gloves with leather protectors.

 

ADDRESSING ELECTRICAL HAZARDS

While some electrical safety hazards can be addressed with proper maintenance and procedures, our rule of thumb is that any facility with a three-phase panel should have an arc flash and shock risk assessment performed.

Anyone that comes in contact with the facility’s electrical system and equipment should be properly trained to wear suitable PPE. The difficultly for many workers is determining what procedures, PPE, and tools are appropriate for the level of risk as determined by particular electrical hazards.

At Herzig Engineering, we help our clients manage their risks and create safety plans and labels that help protect their employees. If you need help understanding the electrical safety hazards in your facility contact our team here.