When asked about the strategies they use to address top safety and health concerns in the construction industry, electrical contractors, journeymen, and electrical trade school teachers alike had no trouble speaking their minds. Based on the feedback from extensive focus groups conducted by the Safety & Health Assessment & Research for Prevention (SHARP) Program at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries in Olympia, Wash., a recent industry research project uncovered several useful tips for promoting safer and healthier workplaces.

Following is an excerpt of some of the most proactive safety strategies contractors are using to achieve success. Whether you're already addressing these topics or not, read on for some inspiring examples that may re-energize your safety program.

Work-site hazard analysis

Work-site hazard analysis is a systematic approach to identify, evaluate, and control hazards on a job site. Frequent and proactive analysis of the site is the key to getting the results you want. Believe it or not, the most effective approach to safety is not always the most complicated. Take this basic approach for more effective assessment of potential safety threats:

  • Identify hazards that cause injury.
  • Evaluate their seriousness.
  • Decide what action is needed.
  • Assign persons responsible for the action.
  • Implement the solution.
  • Re-evaluate over time.

Following are a few examples of how a handful of electrical contractors successfully conducted work-site hazard analysis to achieve the following results.

Improve safety culture: Daily work-site hazard walkthroughs were started at one electrical/HVAC shop. An employee who was lax at wearing his earplugs was repeatedly reprimanded every day during the walkthrough. During this process, he couldn't help but notice that his coworkers wore their hearing protection and were never singled out. This eventually led him to accept hearing protection as part of the company's safety culture. The manager saw that using humor and persistence were necessary in this case to define his company's safety culture — and that employees will perform differently once they understand this culture.

Increase safety awareness: Two electricians were asked to volunteer for a three-month period to note unsafe activities and then meet with the safety manager to brainstorm solutions to the hazards they saw. The three presented the hazards and solutions to the rest of the crew at quarterly meetings. The company manager observed that when you involve employees in the process, they are more likely to take ownership of the safety program.

Bring variety and realism to safety meetings: The foreman at one small electrical company picked an electrician to walk through the job and note hazards, such as improper ladder and tool use. Hazards that concerned other trades were also noted, such as sheetrock being loaded through a second story window as pipefitters worked directly below. These walkthroughs provided interesting and realistic subject matter for discussion at safety meetings. The foreman remarked that some employees may think the walkthrough is a test. If so, try sending the electricians out by themselves so there is less pressure to find hazards. If it seems fun and challenging rather than a chore, they won't dread doing it.

In addition to work-site hazard analysis efforts, respondents also stressed the importance of working de-energized.

Working de-energized

Based on survey feedback, many electrical contractors in Washington have created cost-effective opportunities to work de-energized, which significantly reduces the risk of bodily injury, loss of life, and destruction of property and production. Motivation to work de-energized was summed up by one training center teacher: “An arc flash essentially is a fireball, and that fireball has molten metal in it, copper, and aluminum. It does damage to the skin, eyes, lungs, and is worse than the shock could ever think of being. The physical damage that's done to people is very ugly.”

A closer look at the contractors who successfully work de-energized revealed some common elements among this group, including the following traits:

  • Commitment from top management.
  • Willingness to educate customer on job hazards.
  • Written work policies.
  • Supportive company culture for field electricians.
  • Pre-planning and scheduling.
  • Trained and confident electricians.
  • Effective communication.

The following real-life examples illustrate the above elements put into practice.

Proposed action

Prior to starting work at an occupied hospital, an electrical company met with the hospital's safety officer to discuss its safety and health concerns. The meeting allowed the electrical company to educate the hospital on the hazards of working energized.

Positive outcome

Through pre-planning and scheduling, the electrical company performed work on de-energized circuits in the hospital. The staff appreciated the contractor's forward communication and willingness to conduct work safely and expressed a desire to contract with the company again in the future.

Proposed action

A business owner in urgent need of electrical repair work was adamant that power not be shut down, despite the fact that a previous electrician was injured earlier under energized conditions. The newly contracted service electrician did not feel the energized system could be worked on in a safe manner. The electrician discussed the situation with his manager and was given permission to refuse the job if the owner would not agree to power down. Ultimately, the electrician was able to reassure the business owner, make his case for safety, and do the work de-energized.

Positive outcome

The electrician was backed by company policy, and the company culture supported his decision. Therefore, he was able to demonstrate professional competency while educating the owner about potential hazards.

Proposed action

An apartment manager told an electrician that the electricity could not be turned off while repairs were made to one of the occupied units. The electrician knew his company's policy clearly stated that energized work required a permit and that two journeymen needed to be present. After speaking to his manager, the two agreed he should speak with the apartment manager again and explain the company's work policies. Once the electrician made his company's work policies clear, the apartment manager decided to check with the tenant about a possible disruption. As a result, the tenant agreed to have power shut down for an hour.

Positive outcome

A well-trained electrician, backed by a company with clear de-energized work policies, was able to communicate the hazards inherent in the repair work and the choices open to the apartment manager. When the tenant was notified, he readily accepted the required temporary disruption of power.

Proposed action

An electrical contractor frequently did service work on de-energized lights in a large office building. At a safety meeting between the contractor and the customer, the parties discussed how to communicate the temporary power outage to office staff. Small place cards were designed and put on desks. The cards read: Hello. The overhead lights are currently off due to lighting improvements being made on this floor. The power is off to protect the electricians from electrical shock that could result in injury or death. The lights will be restored shortly. Thank you for your patience, and we apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Positive outcome

In this case, management had already agreed to work de-energized. The cards helped the electricians establish a safe work routine that was agreeable to all parties.

Importance of lockout/tagout

Locks and tags are one essential component to every company's de-energized work policy. The purpose of a lockout/tagout program is to protect electricians and others from an unexpected release of energy. During the focus groups, electricians and managers shared informal ways to get electricians to use their locks and tags.

Learn about the latest locks

A dedicated safety program was in place at a company in which an electrician was assigned light duty. The individual took on the task of compiling updated information on locks and tags. Using the Internet and local contacts, he was surprised at how much information and new technology was available. What he learned was integrated into the company's lockout/tagout program.

The individual was an informal leader at his company, so when he returned to the job site, his buy-in attitude helped foster safety behavior among the entire staff. While light-duty assignments cannot and should not be relied upon for a company's core safety program, the time can be put to productive use when safety topics are explored.

Clever cost-cutting idea

One company has had great success with inviting a safety vendor over and asking it to bring pizza and drinks. The distributor may be willing to do this in exchange for getting its product into the hands of electricians. Because a meal is provided, attendance is good.

Choose to use

Electricians at one company are allowed to choose the lockout devices that they intend to use. Following a vendor demonstration, service electricians put together lockout/tagout kits (costing about $150 each) for their van. The locks have the company name, picture identification, and the electrician's mobile phone number on them.

Safety synopsis

The electrical contractors, journeymen, and trade school teachers that participated in safety and health focus groups acknowledged that the safety culture in their industry is changing. The real-world examples given in this article are meant to share practical ideas that have worked for some companies, and will hopefully inspire readers to take action to improve their own company's safety culture.

There was strong sentiment that the industry is evolving to where there is a genuine concern for safety, and contractors, journeymen, and customers are investing in it. As one journeyman stated, “The trend of our whole industry is the more you can bring people into thinking and planning whatever they're doing, the more safety sits right there. It just makes perfect sense. You want to be around tomorrow and the next day, enjoying everything you do when you're not working.”

Whitaker and Sjostrom are with the Safety & Health Assessment & Research for Prevention (SHARP) Program at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries in Olympia, Wash. SHARP is grateful to the Seattle NECA Safety Committee, the Portland IBEW-NECA Training Center, and all Washington contractors, journeymen, and teachers who contributed to this research project.


Sidebar: In Search of Safety Tips

For more real-world safety strategies on topics including ladder safety, housekeeping, and lockout/tagout, check out a publication titled Common Ground, Electricians Connect on Safety and Health at http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/HealthyWorkplaces/Electrical/default.asp.