12 hard-to-spot traps that undercut electrical safety

by on February 15, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

Even if you have a good electrical safety program, you know electrical accidents still occur.

Why? There are about a dozen traps that catch even well-intentioned people thwarting their best efforts at compliance, says electrical-safety expert Thomas Mears of Siemens Energy & Automation, Inc. He spots these errors, which he puts in three broad categories, most often when working with his manufacturing clients:

1. Failure to de-energize
Not de-energizing equipment causes more problems than any other mistake, Mears says. Three other common errors:

  • Not checking. After a physical lockout, workers may assume equipment is safe, but don’t test it to ensure the control device worked or there were no backfeeds.
  • Miscommunicating. A worker assumed someone else was going to de-energize equipment, but no one else did.
  • Over-relying on automated devices. Computer-automated controls are only as good as the programmer who wrote them; he’s seen electrical power get routed around automated controls because the programmer didn’t anticipate a particular set of circumstances. Avoid relying on automation for electrical disconnects. Always test and lock out physically.

2. Maintenance failures
The second most common flaw is failure to maintain equipment properly. Examples:

  • Circuit breakers used to turn equipment on and off. Frequent switching wears down the breaker. It can fail and allow electrical overloads at the exact moment it’s needed.
  • Circuit breakers with high trip delays. This can cause what would be a small flash-arc to become larger and more dangerous than necessary.
  • Not cleaning. Manufacturing plants and construction sites are dirty – gunk becomes caked on and inside electrical enclosures. During maintenance, it can become airborne, settle between adjacent conductors and flash over.
  • Temporary solutions become permanent ones. Temporary wiring solves an immediate problem and can move it to the bottom of a priority list. But it’s a leading cause of electrical fires.
  • Failure to keep up-to-date on modifications. Workers unfamiliar with the changes may assume drawings are correct and fail to lock out circuits that have been rerouted (or worse, wired in violation of codes).

3. Training and supervising
Training and supervising issues ranked third, including:

  • Not using PPE. Mears has seen plant electricians working on live electrical equipment with their bare hands, and blames a failure to train and follow up with enforcement.
  • Workers need refresher training for unusual or infrequent work practices. If workers have forgotten anything crucial, they won’t discover it until after they’ve started.
  • Assuming a one-size-fits-all mentality. Each type of machine should have its own procedures. He’s seen workers who assume that once they’ve had lockout training, they’re ready to handle any piece of equipment.
  • Informal procedures. OSHA requires written LO/TO procedures; informal procedures leave too much to chance.

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