Just because electricity runs through every wall in every building that every reader of this magazine lives and works in, doesn’t mean it’s without hazards. In fact, electricity is one of the most dangerous workplace hazards. Its perceived safety makes it all the more dangerous because employees don’t actively engage in electrical safety programs when they don’t buy into electricity’s potential risk.
Fortunately, most of us have not witnessed an electrical mishap firsthand. One major electrical hazard that can occur in the workplace is an arc flash – a release of heat energy that includes molten metals, hot metallic oxides and toxic burning smoke. An arc flash often is violent, resulting in serious injury and sometimes death. Arc flash temperatures exceed 35,000 F – hotter than the sun’s surface – with pressures that could launch a projectile at 700 miles per hour or throw a person across a room.
According to an Electric Power Research Institute study, one arc flash incident can cost up to $15 million once health care costs, workers’ compensation, replacing equipment, an increased insurance premium and lost production time have been factored in.
The fact that electrical incidents do not happen frequently causes managers – who often have so many other workplace issues to worry about – to believe the hazard is under control. Employees, on the other hand, tend to follow an “it won’t happen to me” thought process and fail to take precautions around electricity. This is unfortunate, because when electrical incidents like arc flash do occur, they can be deadly business stoppers.
As a company that is synonymous with electricity and electrical products, GE has made great strides in establishing workplace-operating procedures that help keep our employees safe from the threat of electrical danger on a daily basis.
Complacency Always Is Lurking
It’s ironic that the result of safety standards that lowered the frequency of high-impact electrical events may cause decreased vigilance regarding future events. Every worker needs to remember that the risk is always there. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 171 deaths by electrical contacts across the country equate to only 4 percent of all workplace fatalities. Within GE businesses, electrical contacts account for less than 1.4 percent of all incidents. There has been success in limiting danger from electrical accidents. The key to moving forward is to continue that success and maintain a safety focus.
The challenge at hand is for everyone, at all levels, to stay focused on a hazard that rarely occurs. That challenge is further compounded because electricity is off the radar for typical workers at most companies. Under normal circumstances, they can’t hear, see or smell it. An “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” operating mode can cause employees or workers to lower their defenses, in turn, increasing their risk of electrical danger.
We actively need to engage employees at all levels to understand electrical risks and reduce the possibilities of electrical incidents that may cause injury, destruction and even death.
FOUR STEPS TO REDUCING THE RISK
A focused, integrated approach to electrical risk can minimize electrical danger and help keep employees safe. GE has taken the lessons we have learned since first harnessing electricity more than a century ago to reduce our own workplace risk. As a result, the company has introduced new safety procedures over the past 130 years and continues to share them with customers and standards agencies in the interest of improving GE’s overall safety program.
A proven four-step, common sense approach to education, awareness and risk reduction helps keep GE’s workplaces safe.
1. Document the Danger
It may sound simple, but documenting the danger is a valuable first step for preventing electrical mishaps. GE Energy Management has developed an electrical safety manual using its high-risk operations corporate procedures. The manual is designed to adapt as user needs evolve. Its three sections make electrical safety easier to understand and practice.
Section 1 outlines GE’s electrical safety program. It translates corporate procedures into layman’s terms and follows the general flow of working activities, giving quick, everyday reminders and reference points.
Section 2 contains guidance documents and best practices from around the globe, including:
- A newly developed electrical-shock policy.
- Classification and the methods of reporting and investigation.
- Expected workflow for any type of electrical activity defined in a simple flow chart that highlights the tasks required to stay safe.
- Powerful auditing tools.
- Design requirements for test areas stating clear requirements and expectations for personal protective equipment, adopting the NFPA 70E simplified approach. This section uses a simple set of pictures to remove any ambiguity from deter mining the correct PPE.
Section 3 contains checklists and forms. Where possible, best practices were adopted and implemented. In all cases, the forms and checklists have been beta tested by users for clarity and suitability.
2. There Is No Substitute for Training
Ongoing training can help overcome complacency. The more experienced the worker, the greater risk of complacency and the greater need for training. Because of the extremely few occurrences of electrical incidents at GE, engineers with many years of experience can start to underestimate risks and take shortcuts.
Unchecked, this unacceptable bad habit can spread as experienced people pass on working methods to the next generation of engineers. This complacency can lead employees to drift from following procedures, leading to unreported system weaknesses.
To prevent this problem before it happens, GE developed ongoing electrical safety training courses for all levels of the organization. To drive home the reality of potential danger, the training includes examples of actual incidents that occurred in the past, such as arc flash. Sharing business events and encouraging students to share personal stories of electrical incidents they’ve experienced or observed, this class helps promote a culture of electrical safety. When employees can visualize themselves or co-workers as potential victims, they are more likely to trigger a “that-could-be-me” response that increases vigilance.
3. Mitigate the Risk
Are we doing the right things right? A continuous self-assessment of procedures and processes can help mitigate risks and improve safety. For example, when GE assessed job safety with safety risk assessments, results showed that workers relied too heavily on PPE as a means to mitigate risks. Upon further investigation, GE uncovered that knowledge voids on the different types of electrical hazards – such as AC, DC, stored energy, back feeds, uninterruptible power supplies and black starts – were the reasons for the disconnect.
A two-pronged solution helped mitigate the risk. The first step was developing a strength-of-defense matrix. This assists employees in questioning their thought patterns on hazard mitigation by asking what type of defense it is. Will the defense eliminate, prevent, catch, detect or mitigate an error and/or hazard? This moves the thought process into engineered defense, rather than cultural or situational defense. Since we are dealing with the unchanging laws of physics that control electricity, an engineered defense is the strongest.
Second, rules work better when there is an association – safety needs a face. The safety team created a “workmate” named ERIC PD to keep the topic of electrical safety top of mind. ERIC PD is a likeable cartoon character who helps explain the hierarchy of controls when dealing with electrical hazards. His name is an acronym that delivers the message: eliminate, reduce, isolate, control, PPE and discipline (aka ERIC PD). ERIC helps people follow the rules and understand the consequences if not followed. Overall, ERIC has been an outstanding success with excellent employee acceptance and effectiveness.
Mitigating the risk also may include upgrading equipment and improving the overall health and safety of a company’s electrical distribution network. In the past decade, several technology breakthroughs have improved the management of an arc flash’s potential danger. GE engineers have been at the forefront of finding ways to apply these breakthroughs to new equipment. As a result, companies can reduce the arc flash risk in their installed infrastructure, increasing the useable life of capital equipment and improving safety.
The following are some of the latest and most impactful strategies for companies to deploy to significantly reduce the energy and risk of an arc flash incident:
Mitigate with instantaneous zone selective interlocking: Instantaneous zone selective interlocking (I-ZSI) protection delivers safety and selectivity against arc flash energy 24/7. The technology places the main circuit breaker on an alternate setting if a fault occurs below the feeder, ensuring that the system remains up and running if an event occurs.
Mitigate with reduced energy let-thru (RELT): RELT provides a safety window during maintenance. New electronic relays and trip units offer two separate instantaneous set points, allowing workers to lower the trip threshold with the flip of a switch before servicing energized equipment. This dramatically can lower incident energy potential.
Mitigate by retrofitting: In many installations, older equipment utilizes fuses to cut power in load interrupter switches on distribution transformer primaries. Fuses can take up to half a second to respond, an eternity when facing an arc flash event. Retrofitting fused interrupter switches with modern circuit breakers can cut off power in three cycles (3/60 of a second), dramatically limiting an arc flash’s time and significantly reducing its energy.
Mitigate with energy transfer and containment: A new arc-containment technology uses arc-to-arc transfer to keep energy low and allow fast mitigation. This hybrid solution can stop an electrical fault in seven milliseconds or less, mitigating the fault and transferring the energy into a hardened containment dome. Since the hardened system shuts down the flash and its energy so quickly, the system sustains little damage during an arc flash event.
These arc flash mitigation technologies and strategies should be part of the design for both new electrical systems and retrofits. By properly studying a power system and selecting the right technology, companies can significantly and simultaneously improve performance and safety. Using a proven power-system software package to design and simulate performance can help minimize the effects of an arc flash.
4. There’s Always Another Way to Raise Awareness
Today, there are more ways than ever to communicate. Use them.
Blogs have proven very effective at GE. Postings on electrical safety have had various beneficial effects. The results are evident through the increase in questions asked after each new blog posting. As a result, a greater number of electrical incidents are being reported as the message spreads. In fact, ERIC PD has become a blogger. His participation has increased the blog popularity and hit rate.
Flash reports – simple one- or two-page outlines generated after every electrical incident – also have increased awareness that electrical incidents do happen and continual vigilance is mandatory. Workers are encouraged to use flash reports at toolbox/tailgate talks. Their acceptance is proving to be effective as both a learning tool and a behavior-modification asset.
To raise multi-disciplinary awareness of the importance of electrical safety, GE offers live, on-demand synchronous awareness sessions for non-electrical personnel. Lasting between 20 and 60 minutes, these sessions raise awareness across the company, from groups as diverse as legal, human resources and accounting. Once alerted to the topic, it appears most groups want to learn more about electrical hazards and how they can be mitigated.
Electrical safety doesn’t just happen. However, with a consistent, management-supported, focused initiative that includes documentation, training, risk mitigation and communications, companies can help keep their employees safer from electrical mishaps, including arc flash.
Over time, vigilant companies will help workers understand that electrical injuries are low-frequency, high-consequence events that they can help prevent.
Jim Heenan is global EHS leader for GE Energy Management and Marty Trivette is North America product marketing leader for power equipment in GE’s Industrial Solutions business.