How the electrical safety trifecta can reduce risk and increase reliability

Safe installations, safe work practices, and adequate electrical equipment maintenance come together.

By Terry Becker, P.Eng., NFPA CESCP

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Workplace electrical safety has evolved in the United States and Canada with the application of NFPA 70E, the U.S. standard for electrical safety in the workplace, and CSA Z462, Canada’s workplace electrical safety standard published on Dec. 28, 2008. With CSA Z462 now in its published second edition and the third edition in the works, energized electrical work in Canada will never be the same. But is this enough? Have we missed a key variable in electrical safety? What about electrical equipment maintenance?

There are really three key elements to electrical safety and ensuring that risk related to energized electrical power systems is reduced to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP): safe installations, safe work practices, and adequate electrical equipment maintenance. This trifecta of electrical safety will result in achieving the lowest risk to workers and highest reliability for electrical power systems.

Safe industrial installations have focused on only legal requirements. In the past, Canadian federal, provincial, and territorial regulations had no specific focus on shock and arc flash. Neither did OSHA regulations in the United States. That has changed.

History, culture, behaviors

When we consider the history of energized electrical work, it’s hard to believe we’ve neglected the electrical hazards of shock and arc flash. Specifically we’ve allowed electricians to use their bodies as voltage detectors. Hard to believe, but from 1942 until 1960 the American Electricians’ Handbook taught electricians to use pain as a means of detecting that voltage was present in electrical conductors and circuit parts.

Workers accepted this and accepted completing repair and alteration of energized electrical equipment as “part of the job of an electrician.” Today this of course would not be acceptable. In the past we focused on safe electrical installations; this is how we controlled exposure of all workers to shock and controlled electrical faults with overcurrent protection. But what about arcing faults and arc flash? They had not been identified in the past. How can we eliminate them from occurring or control the probability?

Worker behaviors have also been a problem, and they still are. Change is required, but it’s a challenge to make the change and ensure it will be sustained. How can we put into place controls that will have a positive impact on worker behaviors?

Why do we need electrical safety?

History, statistics, and the results of electrical safety audits tell us that employers and employees have a long way to go to achieve sustainable electrical safety and to eliminate or reduce the risk of exposure to shock and arc flash. Electrical installations are not constructed or maintained to the CEC or the NEC. Incidents occur in which equipment and workers make contact with overhead power lines. Electricians continue to be shocked and accept it; they do not wear rubber insulating gloves with leather protectors. Electrical safety audits identify that workers are not “electrical safety competent.” LOTO processes and procedures are not in place or practiced correctly, Engineering “safety by design” is not practiced, or there may be errors in incident energy analysis studies. Electrical hazards are not identified, and adequate controls aren’t put into place. No electrical safe work procedures are written and used. There’s no electrical-specific PPE, tools, and equipment, or, if they have been procured, they haven’t been managed effectively.

We’ve accepted the condition of energized electrical power distribution equipment. We may not have implemented any electrical equipment maintenance practices or the electrical equipment maintenance that has been performed hasn’t been appropriate or completed at acceptable frequencies. Without electrical equipment maintenance the probability of abnormal conditions occurring on energized electrical equipment increases, and thus the risk increases.

Evolution and change

How can we effect change? How can we ensure the change is sustainable? We need to use management systems and apply the tools in standards/guidelines within the management systems. We need to deploy the management systems, get them to work for the benefit intended, audit their performance, implement corrective actions, and implement a continuous improvement philosophy.

We need to overcome the challenges that make change difficult:

  • Change is fear.
  • Change is overwhelming.
  • Change is hard.
  • Change is necessary.

Change is good. Change is inevitable. We must commit to change. Without change, we cannot improve.

The Canadian Electrical Code, Part 1, C22.1, and the National Electrical Code, NFPA 70, were developed to effect change in safe installations. The NFPA 70E standard and the CSA Z462 standard were developed to effect change in electrical safe work practices.

NFPA 70B and the NETA MTS standards were developed and have evolved to effect change in electrical equipment maintenance. In Canada, the CSA Z463 guideline on maintenance of electrical systems published in January 2014 will effect change in Canada with respect to improvements in electrical equipment maintenance.

A trifecta for electrical safety is achievable. What do I mean by this statement? I’m not a gambler, and this is not a horse race, but I know that, when it comes to electrical safety, it is within our power to achieve this level of success. This is the result of managing electrical safety to the highest levels — doing everything possible to reduce the risk of exposure to workers to the electrical hazards of arc flash and shock.

This result can be achieved and the risk can be reduced to as low as reasonably practicable by using the electrical safety trifecta: using approved equipment, installed to CEC, Part 1, or NEC; establishing electrical safe work practices, such as test-before-touch on de-energized equipment; and implementing effective electrical equipment maintenance. All three of these elements should be implemented and maintained using appropriate management systems.

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