Electrical Safety Training Is Harder Than You Think

Successful electrical safety training changes worker behavior and improves the workplace culture.

Any safety training program, regardless of the hazard, needs to influence and change worker behaviors in order to prevent injuries. It must impact trainees to the degree that they buy into the new safe work practices. In other words, it needs to make a difference.

Electrical safety training that merely covers the work practices spelled out in NFPA 70E and OSHA is lacking in that simply knowing the rules doesn't equal following the rules. You need training that not only outlines the safe work practices but also why they must be followed.

Training that sells the concept and encourages buy-in excites the learner into action. In this case, it changes behavior by urging workers to adopt new electrical safe work practices. Your electrical staff needs to get to the point where the safe work practices in NFPA 70E become second nature and electrical safety is always on their mind. Well-executed training is how you accomplish that.

THEN VS. NOW

I started working in factory electrical maintenance 27 years ago in a 100-year-old foundry in Terre Haute, Ind. My first day on the job began with my boss saying, “You'll work with Bill for 2 weeks. He's our best electrical guy. Do everything he says.”

One day, shortly after I started, Bill and I were in the plant standing in front of a very large and very old 600-amp disconnect. This is one of those gray boxes with a handle on the right side labeled on/off that hangs on the walls of factories. Bill told me, “Kid, when you turn one of these big switches on or off, stand over to the side, use your left hand, turn your head and it might not hurt to duck a little.” I asked why and he responded with, “Well, sometimes these things blow up.” That certainly got my attention. Bill was very convincing, as I could see this was something he believed in very strongly.

After that, any time I opened and closed disconnects, I followed Bill's advice without fail. Several years later, at another factory, that very procedure saved me from injury when a few large components of an electronic motor drive exploded in an open panel I had just switched on. I was standing off to the side, using my left hand, my head was turned and yes, I might have even ducked a little — all thanks to Bill and something he had taught me years before. It is still good information and I follow Bill's advice today.

Bill changed my behavior. Is your training program having the same kind of impact on your electrical maintenance staff? It should. It needs to.

Sadly, Bill's simple advice was all we had 27 years ago. He and I were probably wearing polyester disco shirts and sporting gold chains, too. I don't remember ever having a safety meeting, and electrical safety training certainly wasn't offered. Back then, electrical safety training wasn't something commonly offered to electrical employees. As a matter of fact, over the next 10 years, as I worked in various factories in maintenance and production positions, I was never a participant in an electrical safety class. (When I did participate in my first electrical safety class, it was as the instructor.)

A lot has changed since then. We have learned how to protect people from arc flash and shock. People much smarter than I have developed procedures for calculating the energy released in an arc flash and often are able to reduce it. We have guidance on what PPE to wear for different hazard levels and electrical safe work practices have been developed to protect us against shock hazards. We know much more than we did back then, and we need to make sure our electrical staffs are not still operating like it's 1984.

START WITH THE INSTRUCTOR

If electrical safety training needs to change the behavior of those exposed to electrical hazards, what should this training look like? You have to start with the most important piece of any training program and that is the instructor. I've been involved in training as an instructor myself and hiring instructors for many years and I can tell you the most important characteristic they must have is passion.

These trainers have to teach electrical safety like an evangelist. They have to believe in what they are saying and not waiver when pressed. They must be able to go face to face with the toughest cynic in the room and stand their ground. They also must be able to back up what they're saying — not with statistics, but with personal experience on the job and with the experience of teaching hundreds of classes.

Instructors only can do this if they come from a similar background as the students and have been in the trenches themselves. They must have carried a tool belt at one time and they must know what it's like to be on the plant floor, under pressure, trying to repair something. Finally, they must understand the peer pressure at work among the maintenance staff, and they have to be able to relate to the concerns maintenance people have when first faced with 70E.

Remember Rule No. 1: The most important piece of your electrical safety training is the instructor. If your training program has no instructor, you're using other methods, so see Rule No. 1. Honestly, the NFPA 70E procedures aren't that hard to learn. It's making the training stick that's challenging.

TRAIN FOR CULTURE

The current culture in your maintenance group will have good and bad elements. Bad elements of this culture might become apparent when someone says, “I've been doing electrical work for 25 years and I'm not dead yet. I know how to stay out of it and I've never seen an arc flash. This 70E stuff ain't for me.”

Does that sound familiar? The person saying this might be your best electrical guy on the job. Others may respect his knowledge, and some may even try to emulate him. This kind of person can spread his feelings throughout the department and can have an impact on the rest of the group. This is the culture the instructor has to break through.

Companies are beginning to train their employees on the electrical safe work practices in 70E and OSHA, but much of lacks impact because the course gets too tied up in procedures and processes while not enough time is spent on the culture change required to get full buy-in. Many companies try to keep it short, get it done in a few hours, or use a vendor offering 1 or 2 hours of free training taught by their sales person who read 70E but has no real experience.

If your training is going to make a difference, training time must be spent on the culture change and be presented by someone with the passion and experience to back it up. The safety of your workplace depends on it.


Daryn Lewellyn founded Lewellyn Technology 18 years ago. His background is in manufacturing and he worked in maintenance for companies including Bemis and TRW. He has been teaching and developing training programs for over 21 years and speaks on electrical safety at conferences, seminars and corporate safety meetings, as well as consulting with clients in their facilities.

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