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Training For Electrically Safe Working Conditions

As a seasoned master electrician and an electrical education specialist, I have been in the field long enough to remember a time when turning off the power to accomplish a task was just not an acceptable option. As a matter of fact, it was often prohibited unless you could show a real good reason that it had to be done. And at the end of the death-defying event, there was barely a mention of your heroics the next day. Often it played on our egos and then pride seemed to set in our hearts and replaced common sense. Kidding aside, it’s a wonder we still have my generation of electricians with us today.

I have been presenting arc flash training for years now at Faith Technologies University and it is generally a welcomed class for new apprentices. It’s like training to wear a seatbelt in high school drivers ed; the first thing that is implemented when seated in the vehicle is the seatbelt. Now fill the room with 20 to 30 experienced journeymen and master electricians who have more than 20 years under their tool belts and the acceptance of shutting down power tends to dwindle. In this blog I address the mindset of why we don’t turn the power off and not necessarily the how and why we should.

In my past six years with Faith Technologies, I have seen many new and revised safety policies implemented, sometimes with some initial push-back from the field. “Ladders Last,” “No Knives,” “No Core Drilling” and now “No Hot Work.” Whenever these policies are introduced, the company provides alternatives to the old way and shows there is a better new way. The intent is not to make our employees’ jobs harder, but to make them safer.

The discomfort from new mandates comes because additional planning needs to be done in order to stay ahead of the game. This is hard; planning requires us to be more proactive than reactive. As employees, we may not even consider the financial risks of an accident or the financial benefits and rewards of being safe. But any time an accident happens, all that gets pushed aside. Your frustration quickly becomes insignificant because someone got hurt and it was preventable. Now what?

Why not just accept the fact that we need to shut the power off every time? I have found that most clients expect us to do so. There are times when shutting the power off is infeasible, such as when taking voltage measurements, troubleshooting and thermography. These are addressed in NFPA 70E and do not need an energized work permit, but these tasks do require us to have the proper PPE based on the incident energy analysis on the label or the table in 130.7(C)(15(a). A saying we teach is “Use the Label or use the Table.” Our mindset should always be, “why is this on?” rather than, “I can’t turn it off because….”.

Sometimes I pose this question: “Plumbers shut off their systems; why don’t we?” Well sure, we think, it’s easy for them to do their work that way. But think about the worst that could happen if the plumber left the system on and water went all over the place. What a mess. Then consider if we did that on the electrical side; the end results could be tragic. The loss of life and destruction of property could be catastrophic. Another approach we take is, do you want to plan an outage with known estimated costs and schedules, or do you want an unscheduled outage with unlimited costs and no known timeframe for repairs?

In the electrical trade, our training aligns with NFPA 70E in section 110.1 where it states that hazard elimination is our first priority. Turn off the power and verify an electrically safe working condition by following the eight steps found in 120.5 and consider that normal for electricians working on energized equipment. If we are presented with a task where we can’t shut the power off, because of additional hazards or increased risks, the next step is to fill out an Energized Electrical Work Permit (EEWP) and have all stakeholders sign off. This captures what the estimated costs could be if an accident happens and explains what could happen to workers even with PPE.

Ensuring employee safety begins well before our team members step onto a job site. Training and instilling the importance of electrically safe working conditions begins on day one and continues through year 20, 30 or more.