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NFPA 70E labeling for a digital age

May 8, 2018
Smart labels may be coming to a plant floor near you – here’s what you need to know.

The advent of digital technologies is allowing for quicker, more-efficient, and safer work across a number of industries, and managers of plants and other facilities should take note: Digitization no longer means just implementing building management systems (BMS) or using robotic automation. Today, even the smallest, simplest, and most likely overlooked operational areas can be digitized. This includes equipment labeling.

For 2018, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has released updates to its electrical equipment use guidelines that allow facility managers to bring their buildings an additional step closer to full digitization while also enhancing safety. In the 2018 NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, which establishes safety processes that can reduce a worker’s risks associated with electricity use, NFPA introduced provisional exceptions in electrical equipment hazard labeling.

These exceptions allow the use of smart labels specifically for supervised installations where electrical system monitoring and maintenance is under the direction of a qualified manager. These smart labels use digital technologies to provide workers with access to more hazard and asset usage information than was available previously, allowing for safer handling, more data-driven maintenance, and thus more-reliable operation.

Upgrading from traditional labeling

Historically, critical safety information and equipment technical specs have been printed on an adhesive label and affixed directly to equipment. While meant to keep workers out of harm’s way by arming them with necessary equipment use information, sticker labels are compact, and the amount and type of information that can be included on them is limited. In addition, complications in labeling procedures can render them less useful. For instance, equipment may be delivered with labels applied by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that need to be added to by the installer – cluttering and confusing information. Many times, it’s discovered too late that labeling is inadequate. 

The 2018 exception for qualified installations provides the option to standardize the use of digital labels, including bar codes or QR codes. These labels, when scanned, link back to a central database where mass quantities of information can be stored. Now, labels can provide not only necessary voltage, current, and energy details, but also maintenance records, instruction manuals, and more. Having these documents easily at their disposal allows workers to reference all of the spec and use details they may need to operate on equipment safely.

About the Author: Eddie Jones

Eddie Jones, PE, is the national business development manager for Schneider Electric Engineering Services based in Raleigh, NC. Jones is a 20-year veteran of the electrical distribution industry and has worked as a power distribution system consultant, a product applications engineer, and in product marketing. He has authored or co-authored several technical papers and is a member of IEEE and NFPA.

Additionally, because the database can be updated regularly, smart labels can offer the most up-to-date information without the typical label rip-and-replace process. Rather than dispatching a team to remove old labels and install new ones across a facility, staff can simply update the digital platform to which each of the labels is connected. Having a centralized location for this information can help a business save costs and labor.

Digital label considerations

Digital labels can improve safety and efficiency in the facility, but managers should expect to experience some challenges with this new digital technology:

  • Implementing a proper cloud database solution: A central cloud-enabled database will need to be deployed to link the digital labels to required information. All appropriate workers will need to be able to access this database, and certain others should be given editing rights.
  • Providing the necessary equipment: It will be necessary to deploy mobile and handheld technology that can read bar and QR codes.
  • Complying with additional standards: Equipment labeling will still need to comply with regulations established by the National Electrical Code (NEC), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
Tactics and Practices

This article is part of our monthly Tactics and Practices column. Read more Tactics and Practices.

Beyond simply adhering to codes, standards and regulations, managers should ensure safe work practices by empowering staff to make safe decisions about their work – even when pressures abound. By opening a dialogue with employees and letting them know that management trusts in their decision-making, staff can feel more comfortable making critical decisions related to electrical equipment. In addition, staff will feel more comfortable raising concerns about conditions in their working environment when they know they have their bosses’ backing.

Facility managers must understand that this exception does not exist for all facilities – only for the qualified facilities referenced at the beginning of this article. For these qualified institutions, digital labeling can support increased efficiency and safety throughout the facility. Workers and managers alike will experience an easier workflow and improved maintenance practices by having all of the information they need at their fingertips. Digital technologies are continuing to become the norm across a number of industries, and facility management should be no different.

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