Five Electrical Hazards to Remember

by John Scardella, Safety Advisor, Safety Management Group

Electricity is so commonplace in our lives and on our work sites that it’s easy to forget how potentially dangerous it is. I worked as electrician before I became a safety professional, so it’s not surprising that I pay particular attention to matters regarding electricity. What does surprise me, however, is how often very basic safety rules for working around electricity are ignored.

When most people consider the dangers of electricity, they think about the potential for being shocked or electrocuted. On the work site, electricity can cause other dangerous situations. Short circuits or overloaded wires can cause fires and injuries. Some arcs that are caused by short circuits can cause equipment to disintegrate. And when work is being done around flammable vapors or gases, electricity can provide the spark that triggers explosions.

Unsafe work practices are one of the primary causes of preventable electrical accidents, so I’m going to focus on some of the common mistakes I’ve seen on jobsites. The five hazards described below are very common and easily preventable, making them a great topic for a safety meeting or toolbox talk.

Working on Live Circuits

There are times when working on or around a live circuit is unavoidable, but most of the time, that isn’t the case. A worker will look at a job and decide it’s only going to take a few moments, so he won’t bother to throw the breaker or take similar safety steps. That’s especially true if he doesn’t expect to come in contact with the electrical lines – such as a painter who will paint around a wall outlet or light switch.

But accidents do happen, and even momentary contact with a live circuit could cause a serious injury. Even if the worker isn’t hurt by the shock, he can be startled and jump or fall backwards into another person or object. The workers who take shortcuts with live circuits are the workers who end up hurting themselves or those around them.

Skipping Lockout/Tagout

A variation of working on live circuits is ignoring the safety protection offered by lockout/tagout procedures. While lockout/tagout procedures may just seem to add time-consuming steps to simple jobs, they are very effective at protecting workers from both shock hazards and the possibility that a piece of equipment may start up while it’s being inspected or worked on.

Even on low-voltage circuits, you should verify that current has been shut off at the switch box, and install a padlock to keep it from being re-energized. Then place tags on any switches or controls to make it clear that the equipment is out of service. Only the worker who locked out the equipment or a person with specific authorization should be allowed to remove the tags and lock.

Mind Your PPE

The right personal protective equipment (PPE) is part of proper safety procedures for any task, and electrical work is certainly no exception. Depending on the nature of the work, that may include everything from rubber insulating gloves to face shields and special helmets. Before beginning a task, a worker should verify what PPE is required and inspect the equipment to ensure that it will provide adequate protection. Supervisors should verify that workers know how to properly use the PPE that will be required on the site.

Improper Grounds

A properly grounded circuit provides a very high level of security because it directs the flow of electricity away from the human body by giving it a faster route to an earth ground. However, many craftspeople don’t take the time to inspect ground wires to ensure that they provide the right protection. Sometimes, installers will try to save a couple minutes and a wire nut by not bothering to attach the ground wire to the electrical box. That kind of laziness creates a hazard for everyone who uses equipment attached to that box. Another example is broken grounds on the ends of extension cords. While the cord still conducts electricity, it doesn’t provide the protection of a grounded circuit.
Damaged Extension Cords

Speaking of extension cords, it always amazes me to see craftspeople using cords that I wouldn’t touch on a bet. In addition to damaged grounds, I’ve seen extension cords where the insulation has been damaged and bare copper wire is showing through – or where someone used duct tape to make a quick repair or splice to a damaged cord. If that damaged area comes in contact with a wet or moist surface, or bare metal such as rebar, it could create a deadly shock. Just throw damaged cords away and buy new ones. They’re not that expensive – definitely a lot less than the cost of a serious injury or fatality.

Most craftspeople know about electrical safety, so accidents aren’t the result of ignorance. Instead, they usually happen when someone tries to take a shortcut, or has become so comfortable using an unsafe approach that he forgets to follow safety procedures. This time, he or she may be lucky – but next time, it may be an entirely different story.

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