Electrical Hazards: Keeping Your Workplace Safe
Electricity is essential to the workplace. Although it’s generally safe and reliable, electricity can be hazardous, even fatal, if treated improperly. The Electric Safety Foundation International (ESFI) sponsors National Electrical Safety Month each May to help raise awareness of these safety issues and educate people about the risks involved.
Exposure to electricity usually results in shocks and burns; shocks can cause cardiac arrest. The severity of the shock depends on the amount and path of the current, as well as the length of contact time. If you suspect an employee has suffered an electrical shock or burn, seek medical assistance immediately. Have someone else call for help; don’t leave the victim alone unless there’s no other option.
Most workplace electrical hazards are the result of one of three factors: faulty or unprotected equipment, an unsafe working environment, or risky work practices. Safety methods include:
Insulation. Insulators — including rubber, plastic or glass — stop or inhibit the flow of electrical current. The insulation should be suitable for the voltage used and the environmental conditions. Insulation is often color-coded. Grounded wires are normally green or white; hot wires are typically black or red.
Protective devices. These limit or stop the flow of current automatically in the event of a ground fault, overload or short circuit. Common examples include fuses, circuit breakers and ground-fault circuit interrupters.
Guarding. Exposed live parts operating at 50 volts or more can be isolated or enclosed to prevent accidental contact. Common techniques include an electrical room, elevated platform or permanent screen. The area should be prominently marked with signs warning of the potential hazard.
Grounding. Grounding can prevent the build-up of hazardous voltages in powered equipment by creating a low-resistance connection to the earth. Grounding is a secondary protective measure to be used in combination with other electrical safety procedures.
Safe work practices. Safety devices are essential, but they’re only effective when combined with sound work practices:
- Overhead power lines can be dangerous. When working near power lines, maintain a safe distance and ground any equipment that may become energized.
- Turn off the current to electrical equipment before making inspections or repairs.
- Before connecting electrical equipment, check the insulation for exposed wires or other defects.
- Only use tools that are well-maintained and in good repair. Remove from service any equipment found to be defective or potentially hazardous.
- Use appropriate personal protective equipment when working directly with electricity; this could include rubber insulating gloves, helmets, hoods, blankets and line hose.
The best defense against electrical hazards is using good judgment and common sense. Exercise caution when working with or near energized equipment. De-energize electrical equipment before making inspections or repairs and make sure all equipment is well-maintained, properly insulated and grounded. Follow all warnings and rules regarding electrical hazards and safety.
See Standards and Best Practices from ESFI for more information about keeping your workplace safe.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides a variety of tools and resources regarding workplace electrical safety standards, tips on working safely with electricity and more.