The electrical barrier

Are you ready to cross the line?

By Gerald Woodson

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When working on electrical circuits and equipment, your employees who are qualified to perform maintenance on electrical systems have two choices: work on circuits that are electrically safe (locked out and tagged), or work on circuits that remain energized.

OSHA standards and the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, have specific requirements for working on energized electrical systems. In §1910.333(a)(1), OSHA requires that “Live parts to which an employee may be exposed must be deenergized before the employee works on or near them, unless the employer can demonstrate that deenergizing introduces additional or increased hazards or is infeasible due to equipment design or operational limitations.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2007 there were 305 electrocutions by contact with electrical wiring/equipment. There were another 2,420 injuries that required at least one day away from work.

Are your qualified employees fully qualified and prepared to cross over to the energized side of the barrier?

– Gerald Woodson

Locking out and tagging of electrical equipment provides advantages beyond simply shock and arc flash protection. It’s much easier to work on electrical components without bulky personal protective equipment (PPE) such as rubber gloves, leather glove protectors and flame-resistant (FR) clothing. Also, handling tools and test equipment can be difficult when wearing gloves and protectors and can increase the chance of an electrical accident.

If you want your employees to work in the safest electrical work environment possible, you must insist your lockout/tagout program is used for all electrical work. But, if you must consider working on energized circuits, read on.

Establish the barrier

Working on electrically energized systems isn’t the ideal, but on occasion, it might need to be done. With the right approach and appropriate equipment, the work can be done safely.

OSHA requires employers to post safety signs and tags and erect barricades to prevent or limit nonqualified employee access to exposed energized electrical systems. The NFPA 70E has similar wording for signs, tags, and barricades. The NFPA goes further than OSHA by providing specific shock and arc flash approach boundaries for qualified workers.

When your qualified employees cross over to the energized side of the barrier, are they fully qualified and prepared to be there? You should consider four points to ensure they’re ready to go: knowledge, personal protective equipment, hand tools, and test equipment.

Know what you’re doing

Perhaps the best employee protection is knowledge. Before anyone crosses the electrical barrier, they must be trained to do the electrical work. That’s the extent of OSHA’s requirements. However, if they understand your safety program and participated in preparing the electrical work permit, they’ll be best prepared to work on energized electrical equipment.

Training: OSHA’s training requirements for qualified employees are in the Safety-Related Work Practice requirements at §1910.332. These requirements are generalized. Your employees need to know the generalities, but they also need to know specifics of the task.

Electrical safety program: Employees must understand and be able to implement your electrical safety program. The program should contain general program procedures that are required for both deenergized and energized electrical work. The best sources to use for your electrical safety program are OSHA’s Safety-Related Work Practices at §1910.331 through §1910.335, and the NFPA 70E.

Energized electrical work permit: Your employees also must know the specifics of the current job. OSHA is persistent in pointing out that knowledge of specific safety-related work practices is required. Section 1910.333(a), “Selection and use of work practices,” says:

“Safety-related work practices must be employed to prevent electric shock or other injuries resulting from either direct or indirect electrical contacts, when work is performed near or on equipment or circuits which are or may be energized. The specific safety-related work practices shall be consistent with the nature and extent of the associated electrical hazards.”

More specifically, §1910.333(a)(2) says:

“Energized parts. If the exposed live parts are not deenergized (i.e., for reasons of increased or additional hazards or infeasibility), other safety-related work practices shall be used to protect employees who may be exposed to the electrical hazards involved. Such work practices shall protect employees against contact with energized circuit parts directly with any part of their body or indirectly through some other conductive object. The work practices that are used shall be suitable for the conditions under which the work is to be performed and for the voltage level of the exposed electric conductors or circuit parts.”

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