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Insulating Employees from Electric Shocks

Even when a city or town does not operate a municipal power system, its employees can find themselves working on electrical systems at municipal facilities. Although electrical injuries are rare, they can create substantial and even fatal injuries. The Electrical Safety Foundation International counted 166 electrical fatalities in the workplace nationwide in 2019, as well as 1,900 injuries. For electrical injuries, utility work is second only to construction work. 

Even employees who are not assigned to electrical work can be exposed to electrical hazards. They should understand the basics of electricity traveling through potentially conductive materials, including water or wet items. The human body is also conductive, and when it is in contact with an electrical circuit, it can receive an electric shock. The severity of the shock depends on everything from the amount of current, its path, the length of electrical contact and the current’s frequency. Shocks can create everything from a faint tingling sensation to severe burns, cardiac arrest and death. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers several basic rules of electrical safety for workers: 
  • Employees should work under the assumption that all overhead wires are energized at lethal voltages and stay at least 10 feet away from them, even when the lines are down or appear to be insulated. When working at an elevated height and handling long objects, workers should check for overhead power lines posing a risk of direct contact, contact through the object they are holding or an electrical arc. Be aware that there are also electrical lines buried in the ground and need to be identified before digging in the area occurs. 
  • If an overhead wire falls and touches a vehicle while driving, the driver should remain inside the vehicle and drive away from the line. If the vehicle stalls, do not exit the vehicle. Warn others from touching the vehicle or the wire and contact emergency services. 
  • Never use electrical equipment while standing in water. When using electrical equipment in damp conditions, check the equipment and its cords for any damage to the outer insulation and ground pin, and use a ground-fault circuit interrupter. Electrical equipment that has become wet should be removed from service until it can be inspected by a qualified electrician.
  • Only authorized and qualified employees should repair electrical cords and other equipment. According to OSHA Standard 1910.399, a qualified worker is one who “has received training in and has demonstrated skills and knowledge in the construction and operation of electric equipment and installations and the hazards involved.” The standard also notes that a person might be qualified for some equipment and not for other equipment. 
  • Accidental release of electrical energy is one of the hazards that lockout/tagout procedures are designed to help prevent. Before maintaining electrical equipment, workers should disconnect electrical sources from the equipment, lock and/or tag the machine’s switch or controls to indicate that the device is out of service. 
  • Employees should always wear nonsynthetic material, such as a cotton, long-sleeved shirt as well as leather gloves while resetting a breaker. Always stand to the side while resetting the breaker. If the breaker trips again, have a qualified electrician look for the cause of the breaker tripping.