As demand soars for new residential and commercial construction and more electrical contractors seek to retain and even expand their workforces, employers must remain focused on the safety of their valued employees.
Following good safety practices and complying with regulations of the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) helps protect the lives of workers, clients, and a building’s occupants. Putting safety first also helps avoid delays in projects, hefty OSHA fines, and damage to an electrical contractor’s good reputation.
On top of that, we are still navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many employees and supervisors let their OSHA certifications lapse and now face the risk of falling out of compliance. They may need new training – 10 hours for all construction workers and 30 hours for employees with supervisory or safety-related responsibilities – to retain or regain their OSHA certifications.
Most electrical accidents are not due to ignorance. Skilled craft workers understand electrical safety, but even the best can get complacent and forget a necessary step in a procedure they have done many times. That’s just one reason why having safety professionals on job sites helps electrical businesses and their new/veteran electricians follow good practices and comply with regulations. Even if businesses are small and cannot afford the traditional full-time safety employee, they certainly can take advantage of today’s technology and the ever-growing gig economy.
Electrical contractors can hire experienced safety professionals for short-term or long-term projects. For example, they may contract with an expert in fall protection to run a training class remotely, tap a certified professional to do an inspection, or bring in a knowledgeable specialist to keep their OSHA reports accurate and up to date.
Let’s look at some top safety issues and the plans your business can make to keep its workers healthy and safe this year.
Protect them from falls
A total of 1,790 electricians were injured in falls, slips, and trips in 2020, and 18 died in falls, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Violations of general requirements to protect workers from falls were the No. 1 reason for OSHA citations in the fiscal year 2020.
Any work in the construction industry done at heights of 6 ft or more is required to have measures in place to protect workers from falling off overhead platforms or elevated workstations or falling through holes in the floor. If workers could fall into dangerous machines or equipment, regardless of the heights involved, protections are required there, too.
To ensure safety in these cases, employers must provide guardrails and toe boards around open-sided platforms and floor holes. Safety harnesses, lines, and nets also may be required on certain jobs. OSHA further requires employers to train every worker who might be exposed to a fall hazard in how to recognize such hazards and what procedures to follow to minimize their chances of falling. Training must be done by a competent person in a language the workers can understand.
Use personal protective equipment
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects electrical workers from injury to their eyes, faces, the rest of their skin – and their lives – from bright flashes, burns, shocks, and other electrical hazards. PPE for electricians includes everything from safety glasses to safety boots or shoes, as well as rubber insulating gloves and sleeves, flame-resistant clothing, earplugs or earmuffs, and industrial helmets designed to reduce electric shocks. Employers are required to train workers, so they know when and what kind of PPE is necessary and how to wear and care for their equipment properly.
Wearable devices are an up-and-coming safety tool. Clothing may feature sensors that monitor biometric data and a worker’s location. If employees work in an area of the country with excessively hot or cold temperatures, the sensors can alert them when their bodies are in distress. If employees are at higher risk of heart or respiratory incidents, the sensors can monitor heart rates, blood pressure, and oxygen levels to let them know when to take precautions.
Train on lockout/tagout procedures
If the electrical source to machines or equipment isn’t turned off and de-energized while workers are maintaining or repairing the unit, they can be seriously injured or even electrocuted. Lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures are designed to ensure that workers shut off the power to the unit and that it cannot accidentally or unexpectedly start up again while the workers are doing the maintenance or repairs.
Employers are required to train workers to know, understand, and follow lockout/tagout procedures. Workers should receive an individual lock and matching key to use. They must be trained in how to turn off an electrical current, de-energize, padlock the switch in the OFF position, and tag the switch or machine controls to notify everyone that the equipment is being worked on. When the work is complete, the worker uses the matching key to unlock the electrical source and turn the machine on.
These procedures should become ingrained habits for every worker. To keep workers proficient in lockout/tagout procedures and to introduce them to new or changed procedures, regular training and retraining is the smart approach.
Address electrical-specific issues
Arc flashes, which occur when an electrician works on or near energized equipment, can result in serious burns; injuries from flying metal, bright flashes, deafening noise; and even death. Employers are responsible for training workers in the procedures to prevent arc flashes and for making sure workers have PPE, including arc-rated clothing, to protect them if an arc flash occurs. Workers also must be instructed to take off all metallic objects ― watches, rings, earrings, belt buckles, and more ― that could attract a live current.
Grounding is another big safety concern. Improperly installed service or system grounds can damage your or your client’s costly machines and tools. Improperly installed equipment grounds leave an even more valuable asset – equipment operators – vulnerable to injury or death from electric shocks. Make sure your workers know the procedures for how and where to ground electrical current in both situations.
Plan for how to communicate hazards
The locations and natures of electrical hazards can change daily on a construction work site, meaning supervisors need to adjust their safety plans daily as one part of a job is completed and work begins on the next phase. They need to communicate these changes and updates to safety plans to the workers, whether in English, Spanish, or whatever language is needed to communicate accurately and effectively.
Remember, safety is the most important part of your job – it should never be an afterthought. Experience and sound judgment are critical, not only to survival as an electrician but also to survival as an electrical business crucial to its clients and the nation’s economy.
Randy Keener has 20+ years of theory, practical and hands-on experience in safety, construction, manufacturing, maintenance, and leadership. He has worked with companies including E.I. DuPont, Fluor Daniel Construction, YellowBird, and Hard Hat. He can be reached at [email protected]