Hazard communication

5 common electrical safety errors

and some solutions


Photo: simonkr/iStockphoto

Errors in electrical work practices can vary. Still, experts have identified patterns.

One frequent theme? Overconfidence leading to complacency.

“Some people will think that, ‘Oh, this task is just going to take a minute. I forgot to finish something.’ They don’t think it through,” said Jim Phillips, who has helped develop numerous U.S. and international electrical safety standards. “Electrical safety doesn’t care about how long you’re on the job. Incidents can happen whether the task takes one minute, one day, one week.”

So, what are some recurring mistakes related to electrical work, and how can safety professionals address them?

Treating electrical work casually

“We observe people treating electrical work like a run-of-the-mill task, often unaware of the electrical hazards,” said Zarheer Jooma, a Louisville, KY-based electrical engineer for training provider e-Hazard. “Others appear knowledgeable but do nothing to control the risk of electrical injuries, driven by the belief that they’re working safely and thus immune to injury.”

This behavior is common even among the most experienced electrical workers, Jooma added.

It raises concerns about whether employes and workers are complying with a crucial part of NFPA 70E – the National Fire Protection Association’s standard for electrical safety in the workplace.

Although not enforced by OSHA, NFPA 70E is “the primary consensus standard addressing electrical hazards,” the agency says.

NFPA 70E states that only a “qualified person” can perform electrical work. A qualified person is someone who has “demonstrated skills and knowledge related to the construction and operation of electrical equipment and installations and has received safety training to identify the hazards and reduce the associated risk.”

Some employers may leave the judgment of a situation’s safety to a worker unfamiliar with the basics. And smaller employers may find it difficult to implement electrical safety rules because they often don’t have safety pros or subject matter experts on staff, Jooma noted.

“But even some safety specialists and electrical SMEs struggle with electrical safety concepts,” he added. “Electricity is complicated and electrical equipment may be highly specialized. Electrical workers are troubleshooting with the circuit energized, without being able to see it or sense it, adding another level of complexity to managing electrical safety.”

Possible solution: Jooma suggests employers develop and implement a safety management system that combines written programs, training and periodic auditing.

“There needs to be more formalized education on electrical safety, and this can be at community colleges, universities, employer programs or easily accessible self-study programs.”

Not accounting for all scenarios

Workers can become hyperfocused on the task at hand, which can result in tunnel vision.

“Often what hurts a person is not the thing they were working on specifically,” Jooma said, “but something else that occurs.”

NFPA 70E Section 110.5(H) states that an organizational electrical safety program should require the development of a risk assessment procedure that outlines processes to identify hazards, assess risks and implement the Hierarchy of Controls before work starts.

Possible solutions: “Ensure regular training is done and the company-written electrical safety program contains all needed requirements, including a comprehensive electrical job safety plan check sheet,” said Lee Marchessault, founder and president of consulting firm Workplace Safety Solutions.

Analyze the effectiveness of your organization’s risk assessments and written procedures. Proper risk assessments can not only identify hazards, but also evaluate the need for protective measures such as energy isolation.

In an August 2022 blog post, NFPA senior electrical engineer Chris Coache writes that risk assessments require knowledge of the task, its location, the equipment and tools to be used, and the competency of the worker. Consistency is critical to approaching these issues.

“Without it,” Coache writes, “an employee conducting an assessment may tolerate a risk level that is not acceptable, ignore hazards that have been previously recognized or improperly apply the Hierarchy of Risk Controls. Training an employee to follow NFPA 70E Section 110.5(H) rather than your documented procedure will introduce such unsafe practices.”

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