The main goal of a safety program is to prevent workplace deaths and injuries, as well as the serious consequences that these events can cause for workers, their families, and employers. Organizations with a strong safety culture that have established comprehensive safety programs, plans, effectively act on them, and monitor their progress are the winners when it comes to workplace safety.
Workplace safety starts with a strong safety culture, the collection of value and beliefs that employers and employees share in relation to risks in the workplace. Effective leadership is critical because cultural change is complex and hard. Leaders need to embrace the safety agenda and lead the efforts across the overall organization.
Employee engagement is also critical for a safety culture to evolve. Even if leaders are acting as safety role models, a safety culture will not be sustainable without active participation by all members of an organization, and safety will not reach its full potential. As James Reason said, "an ideal safety culture is the engine that drives the system towards the goal of sustaining the maximum resistance towards its operational hazards." Effective safety leadership and employee engagement are that engine's fuel.
Plans and Actions
There are five critical areas that must be addressed for a comprehensive and effective safety approach. They include plans and actions that help the safety engine run without glitches. In this article, we will look at them in the context of NFPA 70E, where the focus is on the safety of employees who are exposed to electrical hazards arising from the use of electricity. But the same approach can used in the context of other hazards, such as combustible dust and others.
1. Electrical Safety Program: Company-wide, all-encompassing written guidelines are the foundation of a safety program. NFPA 70E, Section 110.1 requires a written document that directs activity appropriate for the risk associated with electrical hazards. Its scope includes safety principles, policies, procedures, controls, awareness of hazards, risk assessments, job safety plans/job briefings, audits, incident investigation, and training, among others. The key objective of the Electrical Safety Program is to provide overall safety guidance. For it to be effective, this program must be properly communicated to, and understood by, everyone in the organization.
Employee engagement starts to be built around plans, but a static plan alone is not enough. For safety to be effective, we also need action:
2. Hazard Assessment: Section 130.2 requires that electrical equipment operating at voltages greater than 50 volts be put into an electrically safe working condition (disconnected from energized parts, locked/tagged, tested for absence of voltage, and grounded if necessary) before a worker performs work on the equipment. Organizations need to establish an effective Lockout/Tagout program to address this requirement.
When an electrically safe working condition cannot be established, electrically safe work practices must be used before any worker is exposed to hazards. Section 130.5 requires an arc flash assessment to be performed to determine the risks, the safe work practices required, the arc flash boundary, the incident energy exposure level at the working distance, and additional protective measures required, including the use of PPE. When work is performed under these conditions, an energized electrical work permit is required if the work is performed within the restricted approach boundary.
There can be confusion regarding the requirements and best approach to accomplish an effective arc flash assessment. There are many standards and various methods that can be used to calculate and quantify arc flash hazards. It is important to realize that not all arc flash assessments are equal, and they can vary in scope, from a cursory high-level view to a detailed scope ensuring all points are thoroughly assessed.
As stated in NFPA 70E 130.5 (H) and NEC 110.16, switchboards, panelboards, industrial control panels, meter socket enclosures, motor control centers, and disconnect switches or circuit breakers that may be examined, adjusted, or maintained while energized must be identified and marked prominently with a label to warn qualified workers of potential electrical shock and arc flash hazards. Incident energy analysis needs to be reviewed whenever changes occur in the electrical distribution system that could affect the analysis results, or every five years, whichever occurs first.
3. Hazard Prevention: Preventive measures lower the probability of a hazardous scenario happening. Proactive prevention lowers safety risks. Examples include preventive maintenance (example: infrared thermography) to reduce the risk of equipment failure, job safety planning/job briefings, and safety audits, among others.
4. Hazard Mitigation: After risks are identified, risk mitigation needs to be effectively implemented according to the hierarchy of control methods:
- Elimination, substitution, and engineering controls are the most effective methods. They are usually applied at the source and are less likely to be affected by human error, compared to awareness, administrative controls, and PPE.
- The potential for human error and its negative consequences on people, processes, the work environment, and equipment must be considered during the implementation of mitigation measures.
5. Electrical Safety Training: Training workers (employees and contractors) that are exposed to hazards is critical to workplace safety, particularly when the hazard/risk is not eliminated or reduced to a safe level. Workers need to be able to identify and understand the specific hazards associated with their respective job assignments. In the context of NFPA 70E, the training scope includes electrical safety, lockout/tagout, and emergency response in a classroom setting, on the job, or a combination of the two. A worker will be considered a qualified person if he/she is qualified to perform the job safely; is trained and knowledgeable about the equipment and work method; is able to identify the associated electrical hazards; and is familiar with the proper use of the precautionary procedures, techniques, tools, and PPE required to avoid them.
Only qualified persons should be permitted to work exposed to electrical hazards that have not been put into an electrically safe working condition. Unqualified workers also need to be familiar with any electrical safety-related practices necessary for their workplace safety. The employer is responsible for determining, at least on an annual basis, that each employee is complying with the required safety-related work practices and for documenting that each employee has received the proper training, including names, training content, and training dates. The employer also has shared responsibility for contractors.
Going Beyond Compliance
Effectively addressing these five areas will help organizations be safety compliant. But the benefits of a comprehensive safety approach will go beyond compliance: operational excellence will follow. Safety is a key enabler of business continuity, operational performance, and productivity. Conversely, workplaces with safety problems have lower employee morale and productivity.
Another key factor to consider is cost. Everyone understands direct costs such as workers’ compensation and medical and legal expenses. They are easily recognized and quantifiable. Indirect safety costs, such as training, accident investigation, implementation of corrective measures, lost productivity, equipment, and property, are less easily quantified but are financially impactful to the organization. The total cost of safety cannot be underestimated, and investing wisely in safety will always bring a positive ROI to the organization: A life is priceless.
Safety first, safety always! Workplace safety can be accomplished through culture, plans, and actions. But workplace safety will only reach its full potential if effective leadership and employee engagement are in place.
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