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Avoiding electrical hazards at work

Electricity is in almost every workplace, and most of us could not carry out our jobs without it. Despite it being a necessity in our working lives, it can be dangerous. Electricity is a hazard that can cause death, severe disabling injuries and property damage.

Many work-related accidents involving electricity are reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) every year.

According to the HSE’s health and safety statistics, between 2015 and 2020:

  • 3% of workers died from contact with electricity.
  • 1,122 workers sustained non-fatal injuries from contact with electricity.

Electrical-related fires are also a danger. Between 2019 and 2020, there were 2,219 electrical distribution fires and 1,629 electrical appliance fires in workplaces.

Workers do not need to work directly with electricity or even use it to be at risk. An electrical fire can put many people in danger in the workplace. Therefore, it is vital to reduce electrical risks as much as possible.

This article will look at electrical hazards and some ways to minimise the risks.

Not Working Directly With Electricity But There Are Still Risks

Electrical hazards

A hazard is something that has the potential to cause harm. Electricity is a hazard, as it can cause severe injury and even death.

The main hazards are:

  • Contact with live electrical parts resulting in electric shock and burns.
  • Electrical faults, causing fires.
  • Fire or explosions from electricity igniting a flammable or explosive atmosphere.

Uncontrolled electrical hazards can cause electrical injuries.

Electrical hazards

Electric shock

A person can receive an electric shock if they come into contact with live electrical parts or if electricity arcs. An electric shock can result in minor or severe harm. It can also cause death, which is known as electrocution.

Coming into contact with live electrical parts can:

  • Cause severe pain.
  • Stop the heart from beating properly.
  • Prevent a person from breathing.
  • Cause muscle spasms, which can cause other injuries such as fractures.
  • Cause tissue, nerve and muscle damage.

The injuries from an electric shock are varied and will depend on:

  • The voltage and current – The higher the voltage and current, the likelihood of death increases. However, just 50 volts AC can cause a person’s heart to stop and prevent breathing.
  • The path of the current – If it travels through vital organs, it can cause more damage.
  • The length of exposure to the current – Injuries will be more severe if exposed for longer.
  • The resistance – Wet skin reduces resistance and allows for the current to flow more freely.

It is the electrical current that makes electricity dangerous, as it can flow through the body. Alternating current (AC) is considered more dangerous than direct current (DC), as it can cause internal damage even at a smaller magnitude. However, both AC and DC are dangerous, above a particular voltage, and have different effects on the body. The voltage allows the current to enter the body, as it reduces the resistance.

It is not always the electric shock that causes injury either. It can contribute to other accidents, e.g. falling from a ladder whilst working at height.

Burns

When an electrical current flows through the body, it heats tissues as it travels, which can cause severe burns and internal tissue damage.

Electrical burns can be severely disabling and can leave extensive scarring. Severe burns may even result in major surgery and amputations. Burns are more common with high voltages, but they can occur at 230 volts if the current flows for longer.

Burns can also occur when a person:

  • Receives an electric shock due to arcing (jumping). Arcing also creates ultraviolet radiation, which can damage a person’s eyes.
  • Touches electrical equipment that has become hot due to a fault (thermal burns).
  • Is caught in a fire caused by an electrical fault.

Fire and explosion

Workers do not have to come into direct contact with electricity to be harmed by it. Electricity can be an ignition source, which can cause fires and even explosions if there is an explosive atmosphere.

Electrical accidents involving fires and explosions can result in multiple fatalities, severe injuries and extensive property damage. Injuries can vary depending on the seriousness of the fire/explosion and how far a person is from the event.

Fire Explosion Caused From Electrical Hazards In The Workplace

Electrical accidents

Most electrical accidents and injuries occur as a result of the following:

  • Not isolating electrical installations and equipment properly before working on them.
  • Working on or near live electrical systems thought to be dead.
  • Inadequate information and instruction provided on electrical risks.
  • A lack of training and competence to undertake tasks involving electricity. Inadequate training is one of the main causes of electrical accidents.
  • An unsafe safe system of work.
  • Using electrical equipment in wet conditions or touching it with wet hands.
  • Faulty, damaged and defective electrical systems, wiring and equipment.
  • Misuse of electrical equipment and appliances.
  • Poor design, construction and installation of electrical installations and wiring.
  • Overloading of electrical systems causing them to overheat, e.g. plugging too many devices into a circuit and using incorrectly rated fuses.
  • Inadequate maintenance, inspection and testing of electrical systems and equipment.

The risk of an electrical accident will be higher for those working directly on or adjacent to live electrical equipment and with higher voltages. However, all workers and others on the premises are at some risk where electricity is used in the workplace.

Electrical safety – the law

The main law relating to electrical safety is the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989. These regulations place duties on employers and the self-employed to prevent and reduce the risk of death and injury from electricity in the workplace.

The main requirements of the regulations are as follows:

  • Electrical systems and equipment must be of good construction and maintained to prevent danger.
  • The strength and capability of electrical equipment must not be exceeded.
  • Electrical equipment must be protected if used in adverse or hazardous environments, e.g. wet conditions, explosive atmospheres and where there is a risk of mechanical damage.
  • Electrical conductors must be protected and insulated if dangerous.
  • Precautions, such as earthing and other protective measures, should be provided.
  • Electrical systems and equipment should have a means of isolation and supply cut-off in dangerous situations.
  • Workers should not work on or adjacent to live conductors unless there is no other way. Further precautions are necessary for live working.
  • There should be adequate space, access and lighting around electrical equipment when working on it.
  • People must be competent or supervised to work on and with electrical systems and equipment.

General health and safety legislation will also apply, e.g. the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. These laws will cover requirements such as training, risk assessment, safe systems of work and equipment selection.

What can employees do?

Employees must cooperate so their employer can comply with the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 and other health and safety laws. They can do their part by spotting electrical hazards when using any equipment and whilst walking around the workplace.

Employees should complete a user check on all electrical equipment, but also lookout for the following:

  • PAT Testing labels, if they are company policy.
  • Misuse of electrical equipment, e.g. trying to force plugs and heavy-handedness.
  • Electrical cables routed along the main walkways (as they are more likely to be damaged).
  • Discolouration on sockets and plugs.
  • Rattling plugs.
  • Any frayed, exposed, or loose wire coming out of plugs and cables.
  • Overloaded sockets, e.g. extension cables being joined together (daisy-chaining).
  • Unauthorised repairs on electrical equipment, e.g. cables joined together with tape.
  • Signs of faults, e.g. flickering, not functioning, a strange smell, hot to the touch and making unusual noises.

Employees must also refrain from bringing their own electrical equipment into the workplace, e.g. mobile phone chargers and appliances. It will depend on the company’s policy whether they allow employees to bring in electrical equipment. If it is allowed, it should be regularly maintained.

Employees have duties under health and safety laws to report hazards to their employer. If an employee sees a dangerous electrical hazard and chooses to ignore it, they will be breaking the law. Employees should always report hazards, even if they seem insignificant.

Electrical hazards should be removed if safe to do so. If it is not safe, it should be reported immediately to a supervisor or manager. People should be isolated from the hazard, where possible, and it should be identified by labelling or signage. Repairs should be made quickly and by a competent person.

If electrical hazards are reported and removed, it should prevent electrical accidents and injuries.

Repairing An Electrical Hazard

Minimising electrical risks

The first step of minimising the risk of electrical hazards is by carrying out a risk assessment. The assessment will identify the electrical hazards, the level of risk and measures required to reduce the risk to the lowest possible level.

As part of the risk assessment, employers can use the hierarchy of hazard control to help them to decide on ways to prevent, control and reduce the risks.

Elimination
  • It is the best option in the hierarchy.
  • It completely removes the hazard.
  • Examples – Using non-electrical equipment, such as manual or pneumatic.
Substitution
  • It is the second-best option in the hierarchy.
  • It substitutes the more hazardous for something less hazardous or non-hazardous.
  • Examples – Using lower voltage or battery-powered equipment.
Engineering controls
  • It is the third-best option in the hierarchy.
  • It prevents workers from coming into contact with hazards by isolating or enclosing them.
  • Examples – Isolating electrical systems and Residual Current Devices (RCDs).
Administrative controls
  • It is the fourth option in the hierarchy.
  • It changes the way people work.
  • Examples – Safe systems of work, permits to work, procedures, training and safety signs.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  • It is the last option in the hierarchy of control.
  • It only protects an individual. It can also be unreliable in protecting a worker due to potential damage, incorrect fit and a lack of training.
  • It should be considered when all other options in the hierarchy have been exhausted.
  • Examples – Insulated gloves/safety footwear, arc clothing and bump caps.

In addition to the hierarchy of control, other measures can also minimise electrical risks.

Here are some tips:

Do

  • Ensure the power supply is regularly tested by a competent person and taken out of service if unsafe.
  • Keep isolators and other electrical systems clear at all times and clearly identify them with signs.
  • Ensure anyone working with electricity is trained and competent. The level required will depend on the task, e.g. maintenance of electrical equipment will require a higher level of training and competence.
  • Use portable electrical equipment safely, e.g. not misusing it, using it for its intended purpose and storing it properly after use.
  • Fully pull out electrical extension reels when in use to prevent overheating.
  • When defrosting raw foods, keep them away from other foods to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Complete a pre-use check of electrical equipment to ensure it is safe.
  • Switch off and unplug electrical equipment during maintenance, cleaning, repairing or adjusting.
  • Switch off all non-essential electrical equipment at the end of the working day. Not only is this safer, but it also saves energy.

Do not

  • Do not overload sockets, as this can cause overheating and fire.
  • Do not force a plug into a socket if it does not fit.
  • Do not route electrical cables where they could be damaged or where someone could trip. Use cable protectors if they cannot be re-routed.
  • Do not use electrical equipment with wet hands or near water.
  • Do not keep liquids by electrical equipment, e.g. open drinks next to computers.
  • Do not plug multiple extension leads together (daisy-chaining).
  • Do not pull electrical equipment out of a socket by its lead. Always grip the plug.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a wealth of advice and many resources on minimising electrical risks on their electrical safety at work webpage.

Summary

People can, and do, get injured by electrical accidents whilst they are at work. Whilst most workers sustain non-fatal injuries, some, unfortunately, do die as a result of uncontrolled electrical hazards. It is more common where people are working on electrical systems, e.g. electricians and maintenance workers. Overall, electrical-related fatalities are low, but this should not lead to complacency.

Many of us do not think about the dangers of electricity when we plug in and switch on our electrical appliances at work and at home. This is particularly the case in low-risk environments, such as offices. Regardless of the workplace type, electrical hazards can be easily prevented and controlled by following simple precautions.

Employers have a general legal duty to ensure (so far as is reasonably practicable) the health, safety and welfare of all employees at work. Therefore, they must identify electrical hazards, assess the risks and reduce the risk of electrical injuries to the lowest possible level.

Employees also have legal duties to look after themselves and others; they must cooperate with their employer and report any serious or imminent dangers. They must follow the necessary procedures, instruction, training and control measures in risk assessments. Together, by complying with the law, electrical hazards at work can be avoided.

Why not enrol on our Electrical Safety Awareness Course to learn more about the dangers of electricity in the workplace and the safety precautions required to reduce the risks.

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About the author

Michelle Putter

Michelle Putter

Michelle graduated with an MSc in wildlife biology and conservation in 2012, but her career has taken quite a different turn to the one expected. She started in health and safety in 2009 and has worked in several industries such as electrical engineering, aviation and manufacturing. She has been working with CPD Online College since 2018 and became NEBOSH Diploma qualified in 2020. In her spare time, Michelle's passions are wildlife and her garden. She has volunteered for many conservation organisations and particularly enjoys biological recording. Michelle also likes hiking, jogging and cycling.



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