Game Planning for Electrical Safety Success

Corey Hannahs Industry Topics, Spring 2021 Industry Topics

As I allegedly approach a half century on this earth, reflections on life lessons learned abound. Looking back, there is no question that the most impactful lessons I learned — those I still use every day — came on days that started in the blazing heat of summer and ended in the brisk chill of autumn spent between painted white lines on lush blades of green grass.

The football field is where I learned, along with young men who would eventually become my brothers, about courage, perseverance, accountability, sacrifice, and teamwork. We learned how to play for something more than ourselves; we learned how to play for one another. We were accountable to one another and came to understand that we were only as powerful as our weakest player; therefore, we had to push each other to be better. When toe met leather on those Friday nights under the lights, as Kenny Chesney’s song, The Boys of Fall says, you mess with one man, you got us all.    

In more recent years, I have had the privilege of being the one to wear the whistle and begin to instill life lessons in my own son and the teammates he will no doubt one day consider brothers. From this side of the white lines, I can begin to understand more about the framework of success. Coaches must create a game plan that, when executed by both players and coaches, achieves the desired outcome: Victory!

Transferring this to our day jobs, what does a victory look like? To me, working safely throughout the day, which in turn allows me to return home safely to my family each night, is like winning the Super Bowl. This isn’t going to happen without a proper game plan that is executed precisely as intended by both coaches and players. Business owners, acting as coaches, must put together a clear plan for safety and ensure their players have the proper resources to execute the plan.

Communication of the plan, proper training, and safety equipment for players or employees are critical to the plan being executed and success being attained. Owners and employees are equally accountable: A safety plan must not only be established, but also must be followed as designed. Shortcuts by anyone could result in failure of the plan, which in this case is not signified by a lesser score than our opponent on the scoreboard, but potentially by whether we live or die. This is not a game we can take a chance on losing.

On the job, electrical opponents such as shock, electrocution, arc flash, and arc blast are all nipping at our heels trying to ensure we don’t reach the end zone at all, let alone achieve victory. NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®, is a critical resource when it comes to putting together a game plan for electrical safety success. When established by owners and followed by employees, the safety policies, procedures, and process controls found within NFPA 70E can help ensure electrical safety success for all involved. Looking at some of the most dominant teams in the history of professional football, it has been their planning and the execution of that plan that has put them in elite company.

Exploring Section 110.5 of the 2021 edition of NFPA 70E, we find items specific to electrical safety that still have many similarities to the makeup of a winning game plan. Going top down through section 110.5, you will see terms such as awareness, self-discipline, principles, controls, procedures, assessment, planning, briefing, and auditing. These are some of the key components needed to achieve electrical safety success. Individuals must be aware of potential hazards within their working environment. Hazards can change and new hazards can arise; therefore, employees must stay cognizant and aware of their ever-changing surroundings. Self-discipline is a foundational pillar of success. Qualified individuals performing the work must be prepared, know the proper procedures, and execute those procedures precisely without taking any shortcuts.

NFPA 70E Section 110.5, Informative Annex E gives some great examples of principles, controls, and procedures that should be implemented into your plan. Principles include anticipating unexpected events, using the right tools for the job, and assessing people’s abilities. One necessary control is ensuring employees are trained to be qualified for working within a specific environment influenced by the presence of electrical energy. Procedures consist of items such as identifying hazards and assessing risks of the task, determining personal protective equipment (PPE), and listing safe work practices to be used.

Another key component is the assessment of risk. Section 110.5(H) covers risk assessment procedures and states that before any work is started, we must:

  1. Identify hazards
  2. Assess risks
  3. Implement risk control according to the hierarchy of risk control methods (more on this later)

An additional part of the risk assessment procedure is to address the potential for human error and understand that risk can be adversely affected by factors such as tasks and the work environment. Informative Annex Q delves deeper into human performance as it relates to electrical safety. Within Annex Q, a section on the principles of human performance includes a basic principle:

People are fallible, and even the best people make mistakes.

This couldn’t be truer and speaks even more to the need to have proper procedures in place and follow them precisely as intended.

Once the situation has been assessed and we are aware of the associated hazards and risks, we must put together a job safety plan and briefing. Within the job safety plan, we must determine a qualified person for the job and document the plan with specific information such as job tasks, hazards, shock risk assessment, arc flash risk assessment, and work procedures.

Once completed, a job briefing must cover the job-specific plan and information on the energized work permit if one is required. Any change in scope after these items are set requires additional planning, and a new briefing should be held.

The last piece to the winning game plan is auditing to ensure the plan continues to meet the safety needs of the users and any new requirements of NFPA 70E. A documented audit is required at intervals not exceeding three years.

Like any good plan, the processes and procedures within NFPA 70E can be evaluated and revised between editions through the standards development process. Although the 2021 edition of NFPA 70E was just released in September 2020, public input for modifications to the 2024 edition is already being submitted and will continue to be accepted through June 1, 2021. Between the 2018 and 2021 editions of NFPA 70E, public input significantly impacted the general requirements for electrical safety-related work practices as listed within Article 110.

Chapter 1 within NFPA 70E, which contains Article 110, is really where the details of our safety game plan are laid out including specifying both employer and employee responsibility in Article 105.

Section 110.5 is specific to the Electrical Safety Program, which requires the employer to both implement and document an electrical safety program that directs activity appropriate to the risk associated with electrical hazards. Through public input, section 110.5(K) was added; it states:

An electrical safety program shall include an electrically safe work condition policy that complies with 110.3. 

Section 110.3 states that conductors and circuit parts operating at 50 volts or more are required to be put into an electrically safe work condition if any of these conditions exist:

  • The employee is within the limited approach boundary and
  • The employee interacts with equipment where conductors or circuit parts are not exposed, but an increased likelihood of injury from an exposure to an arc flash hazard exists.

By definition, an electrically safe work condition is a state in which an electrical conductor or circuit part has been disconnected from energized parts, locked/tagged in accordance with established standards, tested to verify the absence of voltage, and temporarily grounded for personnel protection if necessary. The Informational Note that follows the definition goes a step further to state that an electrically safe work condition is not a procedure; it is a state wherein all hazardous electrical conductors or circuit parts to which a worker might be exposed are maintained in a de-energized state for the purpose of temporarily eliminating electrical hazards for the period of time for which the state is maintained.

While many think personal protective equipment (PPE) such as arc flash suits should be the means we use to keep ourselves safe, PPE should actually be the last resort. Turning power off and establishing an electrically safe work condition where there is no potential for exposure should always be the primary goal. The Hierarchy of Risk Controls is listed in section 110.5(H)(3):

  1. Elimination
  2. Substitution
  3. Engineering Controls
  4. Awareness
  5. Administrative Controls
  6. PPE

Informational Note 1 goes on to state:

Elimination, substitution, and engineering controls are the most effective methods to reduce risk as they are usually applied at the source of possible injury or damage to health and they are less likely to be affected by human error. Awareness, administrative controls, and PPE are the least effective methods to reduce risk as they are not applied at the source and they are more likely to be affected by human error.

Conclusion

The reality of public input to the 2021 edition of NFPA 70E changed our game plan for the better. While employers are already required to implement and document an electrical safety program, the addition of 110.5(K) now requires an electrically safe work condition policy within that program. If going home safely to our family every night is our ultimate measure of success, this change just puts us at first and goal. It’s now up to both employers and employees to fully execute the plan to put the ball into the end zone.

Corey Hannahs is an electrical content specialist at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In his current role, he serves as an electrical subject matter expert in the development of products and services that support NFPA documents and stakeholders. Corey, a third-generation electrician, holds licenses as a master electrician, contractor, inspector, and plan reviewer in the state of Michigan. Having held previous roles as an installer, owner, and executive, he has also provided electrical apprenticeship instruction for over 15 years. Corey was twice appointed to the state of Michigan’s Electrical Administrative Board by former Governor Rick Snyder and received United States Special Congressional Recognition for founding the B.O.P. (Building Opportunities for People) Program, which teaches construction skills to homeless and underprivileged individuals.