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Protecting field teams from electrical hazards: 5 things you need to know

May 24, 2021

Every year, thousands of workers are injured or killed by electrical hazards, a situation made more tragic because many of these incidents are preventable.

Some sobering statistics illustrate the extent and seriousness of the problem: According to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics analyzed by the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), a non-profit organization that promotes electrical safety at home and in the workplace, there were 166 electrical fatalities in 2019 — a 3.75% increase over 2018 and the highest number of electrical fatalities since 2011. Nonfatal electrical injuries are increasing at an even quicker pace, jumping 22% from 2018 to 2019.

Given the potential danger, protecting field teams from electrical hazards should be top of mind for any safety manager, especially in the construction, utilities, transportation, mining and manufacturing sectors, where workers are regularly exposed to these hazards.

Here are some electrical-safety protocols that don’t just make for a safer workplace, but also ensure compliance and promote a more productive workplace with fewer work stoppages.

Watch out for power lines

The ESFI found that 38% of all electrically related workplace fatalities between 2011 and 2018 were caused by overhead power lines. In most of these cases, fatalities occurred in occupations that have little to no electrical safety training, so make sure your teams know to look for downed or malfunctioning power lines.

Tell your teams to always consider all lines to be live and dangerous. If they see downed lines or any object in contact with them, they should stay at least 35 feet away and remain in their vehicles as they call 911.

Should power lines begin a conflagration around a vehicle, advise team members not to touch the ground and vehicle at the same time. If inside, they should jump from the vehicle and land with their feet together and then shuffle away while not lifting their feet.

Follow lockout/tagout procedures

Every day, millions of workers are on sites where machines or equipment directly expose them to serious injury if hazardous energy is not properly controlled. Unfortunately, failure to follow their company’s lockout/tagout procedures puts many of these workers at risk. Year after year, one of the top OSHA violations is failing to comply with lockout/tagout standards to control hazardous energy.

In the event of the need to de-energize, all workers on site should be notified of the lockout/tagout before shutting down equipment using their normal stopping process. Equipment should be isolated from all energy sources and any stored energy released, and only then can controls be locked out with assigned locks and tags. Make sure that no personnel are exposed before testing if energy is still supplying the equipment; if not, return it to an “off” state. Only now can service or maintenance be safely performed. Once complete, remove the lockout devices and notify all employees.

When workers follow lockout/tagout procedures, they are protected from both the sudden energization of machine startup, as well as hazardous energy released during service or maintenance activities. And, most importantly, it saves lives: compliance with OSHA’s lockout/tagout procedure prevents an estimated 120 fatalities and 50,000 injuries each year.

Always wear PPE

Field teams often work in locations where electrical hazards are hidden in plain sight, and so workers are often unprotected from sudden hazardous energy incidents. Standard work clothes offer little protection from electrical hazards, as they ignite easily and can continue to burn, even after the source of ignition is removed. Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) can help protect workers from the harmful effects of these dangers and can be the difference between minor and major injuries, or major injuries and fatalities.

There is a wide variety of PPE — safety gloves, safety goggles, safety shoes, flame-resistant clothing, face shields — but the right PPE needs to be chosen for the right circumstances, and should match a worker’s immediate work environment and its potential electrical hazards. PPE should be worn as the outermost layer and not just zipped or buttoned or attached, correctly and securely, but also maintained regularly and serviced if need be.

Test before you touch

Most harmful electrical-related incidents are easily preventable, no more so when workers are injured or killed by circuits they thought were safely turned off. The lesson here cannot be more clear: simply turning off the power is not enough. Hazardous energy conditions can still exist even if the power is shut off, so workers always need to remember the tried-and-true maxim: test before you touch.

Before testing begins, ensure that all participants in testing are qualified for the job, are wearing the appropriate PPE and are using the appropriate tools. Only after the circuit is de-energized and the lockout/tagout is complete in full should the circuit be tested. And always be mindful that the testing device itself needs to be regularly checked to ensure it is functioning properly.

Leverage mobile technology

Safety managers can increasingly leverage mobile technology to create a culture of electrical safety in their teams and organization, so that everybody is hazard-aware and follows safety procedures. And with location-aware mobile apps, like the kind you can create with the Fulcrum platform, you can develop an integrated electrical safety protocol that will help save lives.

With Fulcrum, you can rapidly build and deploy digital checklists that can be accessed instantly by your team directly on their mobile device, including SOPs and safety sheets, checklists for lockout/tagout procedures, and proper PPE requirements. And with real-time updates, workers will always have access to the latest procedures so they can avoid hazards, electrical and otherwise.

Workers can use their mobile devices to report hazardous conditions or behaviors directly from the field in real time, triggering notifications and any automated processes you’ve set up for remediation. With data syncing across your entire team, including in-office decision-makers, this open line of clear communication allows for hazards to be remediated on the spot.

All records are automatically geotagged in Fulcrum, which enables you to pinpoint the exact location of potential electrical hazards on a job site and alert your team members. And when with all of your safety and inspection data in one place, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view and can make data-driven improvements to job sites, SOPs, and workflows so your team is even safer in the face of hazardous energy.

With location-aware mobile apps, it’s easy to make safety everyone’s job, even if “safety” isn’t in their title.

To learn more about protecting your field teams with mobile technology, check out the webinar, Digitizing the Process: Driving Safety Culture Through Modern Technology, produced in conjunction with OH&S Magazine.