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  • 16 August 2018 13:17

Top electrical hazards in the industrial work environment

Electrical safety in the industrial work environment is imperative. Workers like electricians and engineers are exposed to serious electrical hazards when they are working on or near energised electrical equipment or high voltage installations.

Incorrect wiring, wrong component use, equipment failure and so on can lead to electrocution risks. Often, in workplace electrical mishaps, it is due to arc flash (or a flashover): The heat and light produced from electrical explosion that results in low-impedance connection through air to ground or another voltage phase in an electrical system.

According to a US study conducted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation concerning arc flash injury, the most common work task leading to arc flash injury is the replacement of fuses. Many workers – electrical work trained or not trained -- do this without turning off the power and verifying that equipment is de-energised. From the study, Arc flash injury has also accounted for 29 percent of electrical fatalities from 2003 to 2010 and 36 percent of non-fatal electrical injuries from 2004 to 2013 in the United States.

Understandably, in most countries, there are stringent compliance and regulations in place for the protection of workers dealing with electrical equipment and installations. Business owners can be severely punished if there is negligence on their part. Earlier this year, a company in Singapore was fined S$200,000 (US$147,654) for a workplace death involving a fatal arc flash injury.

The following are some of the common electrical hazards in the workplace that employers and workers need to pay close attention to:

Unqualified workers working with electrical equipment/installations

In the US, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have put in place the NFPA 70E standard which requires that equipment or installations with 50 volts of electricity or more must be covered, protected, or made inaccessible to everyone except qualified electrical workers.

However, workers without certified safety qualifications are often required to use electrical equipment. Even more worrying is that in a documented case at a large chemical company, as many as 90 percent of electricians and technical personnel did not know how to perform a thorough absence of voltage test when asked to verify equipment is safe.

Much more can be done to protect workers from electrical hazards. Sending all employees for safety training programs can be expensive – especially for all workers where encounters with such electrical installations are not a core part of their job scope. One way that businesses can address that may be to tap on technology to replace manual, error-prone manual testing.

Carelessness and human error

A study on electrical accidents and safety measures in India found that electrical accidents often happen due to over-confidence and carelessness when handling equipment. Assuming equipment will not cause injury is a recipe for disaster. Electrical mishaps can happen when workers disregard safety rules and regulations implemented and are nonchalant towards hazard present while working. Workers need to be conscious of potential dangers and take precautions when working with electrical equipment and installations.

For instance, educating workers on different electrical hazards, such as shock hazards, arc flash and their reasons for occurrence will bring workers’ attention to the seriousness of safety checks and help cultivate electrical safety habits in the industrial workplace.

Poor communication and lack of compliance to safety regulations

Employers have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their workers – be it taking steps to ensure workers comply with safety rules and regulations or ensuring that workplaces and any equipment provided are safe. In the industrial work environment, safety managers need to communicate, maintain and monitor proper safety procedures across. With good communication, encouragement, positive reinforcement and consistent checks, safety managers can manage the risks associated with all foreseeable misuses of electrical equipment.

A Finnish study examining accident sources occuring as part of industrial maintenance operations conceded that the decision to use unsafe working methods or to ignore the use of personal protective equipment may ultimately be the workers' own. However, it also highlighted that avoiding such unsafe acts was also the responsibility of management, work supervision, and in task planning to support and emphasize safe working – even if the work was to be performed at haste, alone, and/or during the night.

Employers and safety managers should also ensure that all safety or warning signs, symbols and tags are in place and visible to alert workers of possible hazards. They need to ensure that signs that are worn out or faded are replaced. Additionally, they need to ensure that all workers can understand the signs. This is especially crucial in workplaces where there are foreign workers and one language may not be understood by all.

Taking precautions through verbal and visual communication is crucial but not all. There are also other enforcements like restricted areas, safety escape routes, alarms and first-aid equipment and so on. Employers and safety managers need to be vigilant when it comes to protecting workers from possible dangers and minimizing risks, and there is no short cut around it.

Exposed or faulty electrical equipment

Closely linked to poor communication is damaged or faulty equipment and tools. The same Fire Protection Research Foundation report noted that this is the cause 37 percent of non-fatal workplace electrical mishaps in the US.

Poor equipment condition, and user error can cause electrical parts to be exposed, posing a significant risk to safety. These hazards include damaged electrical cords, overloaded plugs, exposed wires, defective equipment and wet surroundings which can cause electrocution or fire. Greater vigilance is required to check and replace equipment that is suffering from wear and tear, and supervisors need to be on the lookout for substandard equipment that should not be used.

Lack of verification for voltage absence

Currently, workers rely on hand-held testers and voltage indicators to verify whether electrical equipment is de-energised. However, these methods place electrical workers at risk as they expose them to electrical hazards even in the process of performing a test.

While voltage indicators indicate the presence of voltage, they do not determine whether electrical equipment is completely safe to touch – life-threatening levels of voltage could still be present even when the indicator is not lit or is damaged.

Moreover, hand-held voltage testers are prone to user error and such manual tests require workers to open electrical panel doors before conducting the tests. This exposes workers to the risk of contact with potentially lethal voltages.

Absence of voltage testers (AVTs) provide a solution to this as they allow workers to verify the absence of voltage prior to opening electrical panels, while also providing positive confirmation that it is safe to touch. VeriSafe, for example, is a permanently-mounted AVT that verifies an electrically safe environment by the press of a button. This AVT is also fully compliant with the NFPA 70E standard to re-test itself to ensure it is always functioning properly.

Lockout/tagout failure

In Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower’s Factories Act (section 24A) indicates that there are five mandatory standard lockout procedures for the shutdown of electrical equipment, and another five steps to restore the equipment before commencing operation.

Proper lockout/tagout procedures are crucial in the safe workplace. They can prevent nearly 50,000 workplace injuries in the US. Employers should keep technologies that ease or automate these mandatory requirements at the forefront of their minds. The investment in such an approach not only keeps workers safe, but also delivers on compulsory safety procedures to provide peace of mind.

Identifying and raising awareness of electrical hazards in the workplace are the first steps in preventing electrical accidents in the workplace. Employers and workers should never discount the dangers present in an industrial work environment. They need to act upon mitigating the risks with safety principles, well-designed features, to realise the goal of creating an injury-free workplace.

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