3 ways to stay safe around electrical equipment

Safety is part of every job, but it’s especially important when working with or around potentially energized electrical equipment.

Each year, around 1,000 people die in electricity-related accidents.

More than half of these deaths occurred in cases where the voltage was below 600 V. Under the right conditions, as little as 50 V can be fatal.

This article briefly examines some of the approaches that can be taken to minimize the dangers of working with electricity.

1. Avoid being part of the circuit

Never put yourself in a position where you could become part of a circuit. If you’re not part of the circuit, the electricity will have to find another way to go.

(Photo: Be sure to wear proper safety gear when working with electricity; Credit: Shutterstock)

To avoid becoming part of the circuit, you should follow good working practices and use the specialist safety equipment available.

A variety of safety equipment is specifically designed for use around energized electrical circuits. Some of this equipment includes:

Ground cables: Placing a ground wire on equipment and connecting it to a ground (for example, a water pipe or a listed ground) creates a path of least resistance through the ground wire and reduces the risk of your body becoming a path . Some equipment incorporates grounding connections as part of the installation.

Insulation material: When you must work with or near live electrical equipment, place insulating material between you and live components. For example, wear special rubber gloves designed to withstand high voltages. Protective sleeves and shoulder protection can also be used.

You can also place rubber mats around or over potentially live components and on the floor where you will be standing.

Some rubber materials contain carbon, a conductor of electricity. Therefore, use only rubber materials specifically designed and labeled for use with energized equipment.

It is always important to personally examine protective gear for damage such as cuts and holes. Defects will reduce the insulating value of the equipment and put you in danger.

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI): Power tools and equipment (for example, drills, grinders, or saws) must be connected to a GFCI. These devices are designed to protect you if a faulty circuit develops in the equipment. Also, always inspect your tools’ power cords, extension cords, and pendant lights for damage, exposed wires, and altered connections.

Low voltage equipment: When working in wet or hazardous locations, use low voltage (12V or 24V) equipment if possible. Even if a problem occurs while operating low voltage equipment, serious injury is unlikely.

2. Use lockout/tagout procedures

The best way to avoid being injured in an electrical accident is to de-energize the circuit. If the circuit is de-energized, there is no voltage source and the possibility of shock or electrocution is eliminated.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires a procedure known as lockout/tagout.

This method is used to ensure that once a circuit has been de-energized, it cannot be re-energized without the knowledge and permission of the person who established the lockout/tagout.

Padlocking consists of placing a lock on the part of the machine that controls the energy, thereby locking the energy control device in the off position.

Any type of lock can be used, but the lock should not be used for any other purpose.

A label is placed on the device to indicate that it is powered off. Tags can be attached by hand, but cannot be reused.

They can be self-locking but must require at least 50 pounds of force to release.

Paragraph 3 of the Canadian Electrical Code 2-304 describes lockout/tagout requirements in Canada.

Photo: If there is an incident and someone is involved, the first step in helping them is to separate them from the source of tension. This is best accomplished by removing power to the circuit involved; Credit: Shutterstock

3. Take emergency action

Damage to equipment and property is secondary when it comes to human lives.

Therefore, if emergency conditions caused by faulty electrical equipment occur, they should be dealt with in the following order: Turn off any threats to safety or life, then deal with threats to equipment and other materials .

Human involvement: When a person becomes the path of least resistance for an electrical current, that person must first be separated from the voltage source. This is best accomplished by removing power to the affected circuit. Opening a circuit breaker or throwing a switch may be enough.

However, if the circuit cannot be de-energized within a short period of time, the person should be removed from contact with the source.

Under no circumstances should you, the rescuer, attempt to touch the person receiving the shock. You too could be part of the circuit.

Instead, use an insulating material such as dry wood or dry rope to push or pull the person away from contact with energized equipment.

Once the person has been separated from the energy source, first aid measures must be taken.

The first step is to call for help. Use a nearby phone to call 911 or other appropriate emergency contact number. Often the person’s heart stops as a result of the electric shock.

If this happens, properly trained personnel should begin CPR immediately. If there are any signs of thermal burns, these will also need to be treated by qualified personnel.

Involvement in a fire or explosion: When an electrical fault results in a fire or explosion, the first action is to contact the appropriate emergency response personnel. This may involve calling 911 or your plant’s local emergency point of contact.

If possible, turn off the power to the affected equipment. Often, the simple opening of the circuit causes the extinction of the fire. If you are trained to do so, you can try to extinguish the fire using an appropriate extinguishing agent.

Electrically powered fires are designated as Class C fires and require a non-conductive extinguishing agent such as carbon dioxide.

Dry chemical extinguishers can also be used on electrical fires. When dealing with an electrical fire, you should only use an extinguisher specified for class C fires.

Keep in mind, however, that once the power to the burning electrical equipment has been turned off, it is no longer a Class C fire and other extinguishing agents may be used.

It is essential to be well educated about the dangers of electricity and the importance of safety when working around electricity.

You can use this knowledge at home or at work. Make sure you and the people you supervise always wear appropriate personal protective equipment and follow safe work practices.

This article is adapted from BOMI International Electrical systems and lighting courses, under the SMA® and SMT® designation programs.

Read next: Does your location adopt building energy performance standards? Here’s what to do