Carl Potter, CSP

Zero Electrical Contact Injuries! Is it a Doable Target?

Every injury has the potential to cause serious health and illness concerns, yet an electrical contact injury steps-up the chances of long term effects if not fatal. There are so many variables to producing electrical flow through the human body that it seems many workers are “lucky” when they have not been electrocuted because of contact with energized conductors. Any fatality is devastating to the family, co-workers, and an entire company. Electrical contact events are a major safety issue for workers and others exposed to the hazard of electricity.


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Over the years the IBEW, OSHA, NECA, NEC, and NFPA have worked to provide practices that mitigate the hazard of electricity and many companies have developed tools that we call personal protective equipment (PPE), and protective equipment (PE) to prevent electrical contact injuries. With all that, there is still a problem. Electrical workers continue to die and experience serious injuries because of electrical contacts every year. I want to challenge every lineman to consider becoming a part of a movement to target zero contact injuries.

As a motivational safety speaker when I challenge audiences to join the cause, I’ve had linemen throw it back at me saying, “It’s impossible” while others in the same audience said, “I think we can. It’s doable!”
Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” It’s up to our community of lineman, electrical technicians, and anyone working in proximity to electrical power to accept
the responsibility and openly discuss how we can target zero electrical contact injuries.

Can We Talk?
About 15 years ago I sat in a restaurant in St. Cloud, Minnesota with Jim Tomaseski who at the time was the International–IBEW Safety and Health Director and is a former journeyman like myself. Our conversation was about the dilemma of electrical contact injuries and fatalities. Jim asked me an interesting question–did I know of any fatalities from a failed pair of rubber gloves? No–none. I knew of plenty where the electrical worker
experienced a contact injury while their gloves were hanging on their tool bag. Wearing the proper level of rubber PPE is an absolute when working within reaching or falling distance of energized conductors. When we realize that conductors can come in any form not just a wire it may be that our ability to chose the proper PPE improves.

Gloves, Sleeves, Booties, and Sticks
When we think of electrical PPE the first thing we think of is dielectric gloves, then sleeves, booties, and sticks. We have been using electrically insulated tools of some design from the beginning of the electrical business. In the early days insulated sticks made from maple resembled art work and had to be kept in a very dry environment and continually tested. Now fiberglass sticks that must be kept clean to prevent tracking have solved much of the moisture issues. Decades of focus on safety of electrical works have resulted in improvements to gloves, sleeves, and booties, too. Assuming you know a lot about choices of rubber goods for different voltage levels I will cut the curve. Gloves, sleeves, and booties do nothing to mitigate the risk of an electrical contact event unless you are wearing them.

Work Practices
For a moment let’s forget that you are too busy to inspect them properly. In most cases where electrical workers have been seriously or fatally injured from an electrical contact event, there was a rule, regulation, guideline, suggestion, or advisory that stated, “Wear the proper electrically rated PPE.” One of my favorite
phrases is, “We’ve got all the rules and tools to hit zero, if we will just apply the rules and use the tools.”

If you are in the craft you have been trained in “The Zone” and Minimum Approach Distances (MAD)where properly rated electrical PPE is required. Because of the human-factor work-practices have been adopted by organizations to mitigate the chances of electrical workers forgetting to wear PPE in “The Zone.”

When I left the craft to become a safety consultant 25 years ago, we said, “If you are within reaching or falling distance of electrical energized conductors, you have to be rubbered up.” About that time, we started talking about, being rubbered up ground-to-ground, or cradle-to-cradle.” Before we put the first hook into the pole
we have our rubber goods on, and they don’t come off until we have both feet on the ground. When working in bucket trucks we are rubbered up before the top boom leaves the cradle and don’t remove any rubber until the top boom is rested in the cradle. All to mitigate the opportunity for a very human mistake–removing our rubber goods at the wrong time and wrong place while in an unforgiving environment. These are just a few of the work-practices to prevent an electrical contact event.

Lineman Pride & Professionalism
As I travel the United States and Canada–and even East Africa last year–working with linemen and electrical workers I find people with pride, professionalism, and high moral character. I must be honest though, I find many prideful, arrogant, and unprofessional people calling themselves “Journeyman” whom I wouldn’t trust to hold my wallet. It is not the larger percentage of great people in the electrical craft that causes us to not accept the challenge of targeting zero electrical contact events, it’s the few who think they are invincible and will never make a mistake. My challenge is to raise the bar and celebrate our success.

This next year if you are willing to hold yourself and your co-workers accountable to adopt some safe work practices that will mitigate the chances of an electrical contact event, I think you can do it! It is not a group decision, it’s an individual one. Making that decision and acting on it will challenge others to do the same. Here are just a few actions you can take:

  • Inspect your rubber goods before the day or shift begins–every work day.

  • Take the daily and job briefings seriously by being fully present in mind and body.

  • Identify the electrical hazard’s voltage level as well as available fault-current

  • Look at the big picture and identify all the conductors on the job-site from the ground you are standing on and the current flowing through system grounds and neutrals

  • Coach other professionals and learn to listen to others who might help you improve

  • Accept the challenge to target zero electrical contact events for yourself and encourage your crew, work-group, and company, and if applicable, the local union to do the same.

Electrical work is unforgiving. We must respect the hazard of electricity and protect ourselves and fellow workers. As a journeyman, there is a sense of pride that comes when you see a whole area light up in the middle of the night after an outage knowing that you had a part in making it happen. At the same time there
must be a sense of respect for the hazard that causes many brothers and sisters to leave behind a family that grieves. Those that are lost to this hazard are many times memorialized, but it would be a greater memory to their loss if we seek to prevent another family from suffering. Because I study and research ways to improve the chances of making and sustaining a successful safety culture through quality hazard recognition and control, I know that it is possible to target zero electrical contact events. It will happen when you accept the responsibility and take the challenge to create a worksite where it is difficult to get hurt.


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