Electrical Safety Before, During, And After A Disaster

From hurricanes to wildfires to tornadoes, disasters can leave facilities exposed to a range of safety issues. This roundtable with several industry experts from Eaton provides insight.

Facility executives are faced with hundreds of decisions, from the mundane to the critical. But few decisions are as important as those that impact electrical safety.

This is especially true when disaster strikes. From hurricanes to wildfires to tornadoes, disasters can leave facilities exposed to a range of safety issues that can include electrical-related fires, injuries, property loss, and even fatalities. The recent spate of high-profile disasters has demonstrated how imperative it is for facilities to modernize their infrastructure as part of a broader disaster preparedness plan.

This year the Electrical Safety Foundation International focused its National Electrical Safety Month (May 2019) on disaster safety, a topic that’s all the more timely with hurricane season now underway. We recently asked a panel of experts from global power management company Eaton to weigh in with their perspectives around how facilities can better incorporate electrical safety into their infrastructure modernization and disaster planning efforts.

Participants in the discussion include:

Thomas Domitrovich, P.E., LEED AP – Vice President, Technical Sales, Bussmann Division

electrical safetyHarold Ruckpaul, Director, Strategic Alliances

electrical safetyTom Grace, Brand Protection Manager

Michael DeFloria, Senior Application Engineer

How can facilities better plan to ensure electrical safety when a disaster strikes?

Electrical safety should be improved as part of a broader electrical infrastructure modernization strategy as well as part of overarching disaster planning efforts. Unfortunately, electrical safety is rarely considered when it comes to disasters. Many facility executives rely on codes and standards, or on the professionals doing the installations, or even on the manufacturers of electrical equipment to make infrastructure safer. But the reality is that everyone has a part to play, and this is especially true when it comes to disaster planning.

Safety-by-design is an approach that all facility executives should look to take. Electrical systems are often designed for functionality, aesthetics, easy maintenance, efficiency and, yes, safety, but with so many competing priorities safety doesn’t always get the focus it needs. Incorporating more of a safety-by-design approach into electrical systems would help greatly in modernizing infrastructure and ensuring safety before a disaster.

electrical safetyRuckpaul:
The first and most important step in disaster planning is to take the time to understand the unique circumstances and challenges a given location might face. I’d begin with an audit of power distribution assets, including reviewing critical load analysis, generator connectivity, availability and fuel sources, to start. Identify where the risks occur and understand how these risks might be addressed in the event of a disaster. Consider if there are ways to modernize or update specific equipment that might become unsafe during a disaster, and capitalize on opportunities to make these changes so that safety remains a top priority.

Following this, facilities should implement some form of emergency continuity plan to identify qualified personnel, then draw on data to allow electrical staff to quickly and safely reduce hazards by isolating or putting dangerous equipment in a safe location that limits employee access. Make sure to communicate the continuity plan to the appropriate employees and conduct disaster drills so employees understand how to respond effectively.

Electrical safety during a disaster is critical, but it can’t be considered in a vacuum. Facility executives have to maintain a holistic approach to electrical safety in conjunction with other aspects of the facility’s operation. Structure, plumbing, HVAC, and other aspects of facility design play an essential role in safety, and all of these components can create hazards if not considered in overall disaster planning efforts. So when it comes to infrastructure modernization, executives should review electrical system design in tandem with other systems to see where improvements can be made.

On a more granular level, when looking to modernize a facility’s electrical infrastructure, one way to ensure safety before, during, and after a disaster is to make sure the equipment being deployed is safe and genuine. In the world of electrical equipment manufacturing, you’d be surprised how many suspect, altered, and potentially counterfeit products make their way into sales channels, many of which look strikingly similar to their authentic counterparts. Executives should be aware of the risks inherent in the sourcing process and take the necessary steps to ensure safe, authentic products are being purchased and installed as part of modernization efforts.

In Florida, stringent building codes and diligent enforcement are critical not only to individual facilities for the entire municipality. Especially for areas where there is a track record of hurricane damage, it’s imperative that facility executives look to understand how codes and standards are updated in response to events and upgrade their infrastructure accordingly.

Additionally, it’s critical to understand what technologies are available to help improve safety in the event of a disaster and implement them wherever possible. Manufacturers nowadays are building power management equipment such as switchgear with remote operation and other capabilities to respond specifically to safety hazards. Removing the operators from hazardous environments reduces their risk from issues such as arc flash. You never know when a disaster could hit, so whether you’ve had previous experience with managing disasters or you’ve never done it before, having the right equipment to avoid risk to personnel is critical.

What are some ways facilities can improve electrical safety in the aftermath of a disaster?

The most important thing to do in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is to perform an assessment of overall equipment to determine any specific safety issues that might occur. Has electrical equipment been damaged? Are vital systems under water? Are there safety hazards present from powering up equipment that was powered down during the disaster? Beginning with an assessment can help identify where potential safety issues may exist and help facilities address these issues to get back up and running.

Beyond this, however, the aftermath of a disaster is exactly when facility executives should begin assessing their preparedness plan to determine what changes should be made for the future. Review your plan to determine what went right, what went wrong and what can be improved upon to ensure safety the next time disaster strikes.

Up-to-date, one-line diagrams of a facility’s power distribution system are a necessity. Only trained and qualified personnel should be in the vicinity of electrical equipment in a crisis situation, and they need to be prepared with the right tools to render the system safe.

Additionally, some form of business continuity program needs to be implemented. Identify and analyze the risks and analyze the options to improve resiliency against the goals of the entity. Consider more than just energy. What about communications? How will a facility get diesel fuel in a situation where roads may no longer exist? This analysis and planning is much easier before the event occurs, but disaster safety planning is an ongoing process. You plan for disaster, implement your plan then reassess in the aftermath. It’s a continuing cycle of improvement.

The immediate aftermath of a disaster is when many facility executives are looking to get things back up and running as soon as possible. While restoring operations is paramount one should not compromise future system reliability, performance or safety by taking shortcuts. This is especially true when relying on refurbished or reconditioned equipment to replace damaged electrical equipment.

Executives in facilities where equipment needs to be replaced should make sure contractors who do the work are sourcing only safe, authentic, electrical products that meet the current system requirements. As stated previously, in recent years we have seen an increase in suspect equipment in the marketplace following natural disasters and flooding. Frequently sold by independent resellers, brokers and on online auction sites, these suspect products can cause safety issues of their own, making it especially important that products sourced can be traced back to the original manufacturer.

During and after a catastrophic event where a facility is required to operate without utility power using a temporary source like a generator — especially if it’s for an extended period — creates an unfamiliar working environment. That’s where mistakes can happen. Facilities need to have people trained in emergency policies and procedures on site who understand the equipment they’re using and can handle it effectively. If the facility does not have these people on staff a trusted vendor must be contracted to provide these services. Remember that qualified people are in high demand during and after these events.

“Trained” doesn’t just mean reading up on procedures and protocols. It means testing and holding drills to simulate actual disaster events and make sure everything working properly. You can’t just roll up with a semi-truck and a generator, say “here’s the plug” and assume untrained personnel are going to know how to operate it safely. When people aren’t experienced with the operation of electrical systems, mistakes happen.

electrical safetyHow can facility managers educate themselves and their employees about electrical safety as it relates to disasters?

Above all, electrical safety is a mindset that begins with building and enforcing a culture of safety, and this doesn’t happen overnight. Look at seatbelts — how many years did it take for people to get in their car and “click it”? There are still people who don’t want to wear their seatbelts!

This culture commitment comes from the top down. This means executives must be the ones who lead the charge for disaster safety, which means doing everything they can to understand the risks disasters present and making sure their personnel understand them too. Lead by example! There are many resources available where executives can learn about the electrical safety risks involved in disasters. I’d start with the ESFI, and then look at the various recommendations from industry organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association to get a sense of how electrical safety should be incorporated into overall disaster planning.

It all comes down to training. Facility executives need to prioritize having safety training programs that address actions and activities in response to a crisis event. Facility maintenance and electrical personnel would do well to familiarize themselves with the National Electrical Manufacturing Association’s guidelines for flood-damaged equipment, which provides guidance on which portions and types of equipment can be readily restored or repaired as well as types of equipment that are deemed destroyed by water immersion.

Executives also need to effectively communicate potential safety hazards during a disaster so that all potentially affected employees are knowledgeable about the risks and equipped to act. Shorting and electrocution hazards are a given, but less obvious hazards relate to relays and fuses that fail to provide the appropriate responses, potentially leaving systems energized that should have tripped clear. Make employees aware of the risks. This is the case where a little fear can be a good thing.

Executives should take the time to familiarize themselves with the equipment in their facilities and have a plan in place for refurbishment or replacement should disaster strike. The electrical industry organizations, such as NEMA and ESFI, have published resources that can be used in the evaluation of electrical equipment compromised in a disaster, such as water damage. These organizations help to ensure that facility operators have a solid understanding of how to handle equipment that has been damaged.

Once they’ve documented the disaster recovery plan, the next step is to communicate the plan. It’s imperative that employees and personnel receive the proper training they need to mitigate risks during these worst-case scenarios. They should be aware of suspect equipment and be on the lookout for red flags that might be indicators of non-conforming or non-genuine equipment. Educate employees not only on the process and procedures for getting power back up and running, but also about the products being installed so they can prevent potential electrical problems.

There is simply no substitute for experience. Most facility operators have access to peer groups that share this type of information, and this information is invaluable. Learning from others who’ve experienced issues regarding electrical safety and disasters can give executives ideas and best practices for protecting themselves and their employees against future events.

Keep Informed On Electrical Safety

As facility executives seek to better understand the electrical safety implications of disasters and how they can prepare, it’s imperative to examine all facets of their facility’s disaster plan to determine how they can ensure safety before, during, and after a disaster.


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