By Corey Jasper
From the December 2017 Issue
In the electrical industry, adherence to safety protocol can mean the difference between life and death; when working around equipment carrying voltage, current, or potentially exposed wires, there is little room for error. It is advised that electrical systems professionals closely follow National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) article 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, which details steps to take and precautions to consider in order to keep workers safe. Becoming familiar with this standard is key to ensuring safety is taken seriously and proper measures are put in place.
To allow for continuous improvement, address the constant evolution of electrical technology, and provide personnel with the most current risk management strategies and tactics to solidify workplace safety, NFPA 70E is updated every three years—with the latest edition being released in early 2018.
While many proposed changes will clarify existing definitions or processes, significant updates—likely to cause some confusion and/or need extensive review—include the introduction of a human error component to electrical risk assessments and the now required use of the hierarchy of risk controls. In this article, we provide an overview of these updates.
Assessing for Human Error
Changes to electrical risk assessment procedures will be introduced through the expansion of Job Safety Planning and Job Briefings, which will be required for any job that involves working with or around electrical equipment. As outlined by Sec. 110.1(I)(1), Job Safety Planning must now meet three main criteria, including completion by a qualified person, documentation, and inclusion of the following:
- A description of the job and individual tasks;
- Identification of the electrical hazards associated with each task;
- A shock risk assessment for tasks involving a shock hazard;
- An arc flash risk assessment for tasks involving an arc flash hazard; and
- Work procedures involved, special precautions, and energy source controls.
As summarized by these updates, a qualified employee—whether on-staff or as part of an outsourced third-party team—will be required to implement a risk assessment procedure that will both identify hazards/assess risks within the “present state” of the equipment and the potential risk factors introduced by human error. This latter analysis goes beyond the traditional review of equipment functionality. Workers must now conduct a more comprehensive study of potential threats during various work scenarios, such as what might occur if water was spilled on the equipment during the job or if the equipment was operated incorrectly. How would these situations cause or increase the likelihood of arc flash or shock, and therefore put the worker, or others, at risk? Any business sector regulated by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is responsible for ensuring workers follow these guidelines.
When completing an assessment, personnel will do well to also remember that not all power distribution systems (PDS) are equal. As such, different assessments will be necessary for different types of equipment, such as power class transformers, distribution class transformers, service equipment, and downstream equipment.
Once the assessment is complete and the risk level is understood, electrical workers will be required to apply the hierarchy of control methods, found in Sec. 110.1(H), to mitigate risk. Having been introduced in the 2015 edition as an informational note, the 2018 edition makes this hierarchy mandatory. Interestingly, this is a step that is often overlooked, with many personnel completing an analysis and simply jumping to personal protective equipment (PPE); this is both incorrect and dangerous. A risk assessment is not only meant to identify the potential for an electrical incident, but to provide workers with the information they need to remove that risk, avoid it, or protect themselves from it.
There are six methods, ordered by their priority; they can be used in combination with each other to more effectively reduce risk to an acceptable level. Businesses should have a clear outline of what an “acceptable level” means to them by documenting their requirements as part of their electrical safety programs. These methods include:
- Elimination of risk
- Substitution of dangerous equipment
- Altering engineering controls
- Awareness of risk through label or with signage
- Employing administrative controls such as assessments, audits, or training
- Implementation of PPE
Any identified risks should be documented properly for the future. This documentation will be referred to on a regular basis as work is completed on the electrical system over time.
Assessment Success Starts With Culture Change
Assessments are a key factor in mitigating the risks associated with electrical equipment, but restrictions on time and resources may tempt employees to cut corners and ignore safety protocols. This could include skipping the new necessary “human factor” assessment or improperly addressing the controls hierarchy, skipping right to the implementation of PPE.
While critically important—the use of PPE can mean the difference between life and death—the level of protection offered by PPE must be properly understood, and PPE should be considered only as the last line of defense for protecting against injury, not preventing an incident from happening. The 2018 edition of 70E provides further clarity around PPE, including new marking requirements to help electrical workers understand and select high-quality PPE that is appropriate for the potential hazard. This includes:
- Name of manufacturer;
- The product performance standards to which the product conforms;
- Arc rating where appropriate for the equipment;
- One or more identifiers such as model, serial number, lot number, or traceability code; and
- Care instructions.
To maintain safety through every process and procedure, there must be a vested interest amongst staff.
There are several steps management can take to ensure that employees are serious about safety.
- First, it is important for electrical workers to receive new training every three years, as processes and procedures change (including NFPA 70E) and new research and insights identify additional areas of concern.
- Second, each and every person working within a facility should have a common understanding of safety rules and regulations and how to avoid putting themselves at risk. Refreshing standardized auditing practices can help keep employees aware. Additionally, open assessments of employees encourage more dialogue between employees and their supervisors, providing the opportunity for employees’ questions to be answered and giving employees the voice to contribute to the overall safety culture.
- Third, empowering workers to raise concerns around conditions in their working environment is key. Electrical systems personnel need to feel they have the authority to halt all work until proper documentation is provided and safety protocols followed.
Electrical equipment can pose serious safety issues, especially when staff are unaware of how to assess and mitigate risks properly. It is crucial for employees to understand and follow the guidelines set by NFPA 70E. When these guidelines are not strictly adhered to, risk is heightened and workers may suffer serious injury, or even death.
Jasper is a power system engineer at Schneider Electric where he is responsible for developing ground fault protection schemes for low voltage systems with multiple grounded sources. He has extensive knowledge on electrical safe work practices policies, including NFPA 70E and received his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of MO, Rolla.
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