Change management to change the electrical safety culture in your plant

Educated leadership makes better risk-assessment decisions.

By Timothy L. Gauthier, Dennis K. Neitzel, and Mark Ackerson, AVO Training Institute

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In brief:

  • Electrical safety starts with being well-trained, knowledgeable, and informed, essentially “qualified” to perform the work.
  • Unsafe work habits must change by anticipating the unexpected and making plans, prior to conditions changing, in order for the work to be performed and completed as safely as possible.
  • In resolving the issues in analyzing electrical hazards in an industry, we must follow a path that will lead to a comprehensive analysis of the problems that exist and provide appropriate PPE and clothing.
Figure 1. It’s the responsibility of all employees to protect themselves and their jobs
Figure 1. It’s the responsibility of all employees to protect themselves and their jobs

The need for analyzing electrical hazards in the workplace has been recognized by a small segment of the industry for many years. The petrochemical industry and many government institutions have performed research on this subject for more than 40 years. For the most part, however, the user level of the electrical industry has largely ignored the subject, essentially reacting to catastrophic accidents and equipment failure rather than proactively trying to predict and prevent them. The arc flash incident that completely destroyed the front of the electrician’s shirt, along with severely burning the electrician, could have been prevented if management and the worker completely understood the electrical maintenance hazards.

Leaders should understand that an important portion of the business process, if it were to fail, could not only injure or kill employees, but also could shut the business down for days. If you have tasks in which you have this kind of exposure, shouldn’t you be involved in the decision-making process to make electrical maintenance and operations safe? Hazard risk assessment makes good business sense. It’s the responsibility of all employees to protect themselves and their jobs (Figure 1).

Electrical safety starts with being well-trained, knowledgeable, and informed, essentially “qualified” to perform the work. Remember, being informed and knowledgeable in electrical safety must happen at all levels. Every person who performs electrical maintenance and every supervisor or manager who is involved with maintenance technicians or is associated with the maintenance department must be informed and be able to engage in risk assessment. Safety practices alone cannot protect the electrical worker; it must be ingrained into our business culture as a principal.

How do we go about changing the culture?

Maintenance technicians pride themselves on being able to repair anything, anytime, anywhere, regardless of the hazards associated with the electrical work. Unsafe work habits must change by anticipating the unexpected and making plans, prior to conditions changing, in order for the work to be performed and completed as safely as possible.

Figure 2. Proper training is one of the most important elements of changing work habits to avoid any surprise when conditions change.
Figure 2. Proper training is one of the most important elements of changing work habits to avoid any surprise when conditions change.

Proper training is one of the most important elements of changing work habits (Figure 2). We must never be surprised when conditions change; we should be prepared for the potential “what ifs.”

Before you act, take into consideration what the obvious and known hazards are. Check if there are any hidden hazards or any potential for dangers associated with the work that is about to be performed. If there are potential dangers, what could possibly go wrong, and is there a safer way to do the job? And, before the job begins, make certain that the workers are fully prepared to proceed safely.

Most electrical workers don’t view themselves as at risk of injury or death when performing tasks on energized equipment. The reason why is because they have developed poor work habits over time. They have become comfortable with the shortcuts they take on a daily basis, and they have lost all perception of risk.

In fact, the risk/danger never changed at all. Do you look at a job and think there’s a 20% chance that a worker will get severely hurt or killed if they perform this task? If you did, why would you have the electrical technician continue the task?

Safety factors

Electrical technicians and managers need to understand what is necessary to do the electrical work safely as opposed to the “why you can’t do this” stigma that is attached to electrical safety. They also need to understand the possible injuries associated with electrical hazards in order to enable safe choices of how to perform the work, and electrical technicians need to develop good work habits. If leadership is not trained to recognize unsafe work practices, the unsafe work practices will continue until there is an incident.

Each year several hundred workers are killed as a result of inadvertent contact with energized conductors. Surprisingly, more than half of those killed are not in traditionally electrical fields, but are workers from related fields, such as painters, laborers, and drivers. Recent investigations into the causes of these fatalities point to three principal causal factors:

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