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Spotlight on electrical safety

20 November 2023

Working around electricity has its dangers. Here, Ian Thorp provides an insight into the precautions you can take to reduce the risk of injury.

ELECTRICITY CAN kill or severely injure people and cause property damage. Every year, accidents at work involving electric shock or burns are reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Electric shocks do not always cause lasting injury but, in certain circumstances, can result in death, known as electrocution. 

However, you can take precautions when working with or near electricity and electrical equipment to significantly reduce the risk of injury to yourself and others.

Electricity is identified as a serious workplace hazard when working on and in the vicinity of live parts of electrical installations and systems. National statistics demonstrate fatalities or injuries in fires and explosions caused directly by electricity.

Electrical hazards: The main hazards of working with electricity are:

  • Electric Shock and Burns: The human body will conduct electricity in specific situations. An example of a situation is one in which direct body contact is made with an electrically energised part whilst similar contact is made simultaneously with another conductive surface that is maintained at a different electrical potential; a current will flow, entering the body at one contact point, traversing the body, and then exiting at the other contact point, usually the ground. The effect of "electric shock" is the physiological reaction or injury that occurs when an electric current passes through the human body. It can result in a range of effects, from mild tingling sensations to severe injury or even death, depending on the voltage, current, duration of exposure, and the path the current takes through the body. Electric shocks can cause burns, muscle contractions, cardiac disturbances, and other health issues. Each year, many persons suffer pain, injuries, and death from such electric shocks.

  • Electrical Arc Flash: Often referred to as electric arcing, can occur because of a short circuit caused by unsafe working practices if a conductive object gets too close to a high-amp current source or by equipment failure (e.g., while opening or closing disconnects). The arc can heat the air to temperatures as high as 19,000℃ and vaporise metal in the equipment. The arc flash can cause severe skin burns from direct heat exposure or igniting clothing. Arc flash can generate intense heat, which, even for a short time, can cause deep-seated and slow-healing burns. The intense ultraviolet radiation from an electric arc can also cause damage to the eyes. 

  • Arc-blast Impacts: The heating of the air and vaporisation of metal creates a pressure wave that could cause injuries, including damaging hearing, cause memory loss (from concussion) and eye damage. Flying metal parts are also a hazard.

  • Fire: from faulty electrical equipment or installations

Most electrical accidents occur because people are working on or near equipment that is:

  • Thought to be safe without voltage but with current. 

  • It is known to be live, but those involved do not have adequate training or appropriate equipment to prevent injury, or they have not taken sufficient precautions.

Electric shocks can also lead to other types of injury, for example, by causing a fall when working from ladders or scaffolds.

Risk assessment

Equipment must be appropriately designed, constructed, installed, and maintained so that it does not present a risk of electric shock, burns, fire, or explosion when properly used. Many equipment-specific standards include safety-related requirements, which, if followed, will ensure that the electrical risks are adequately controlled.

The situation must be assessed before working on or near equipment.

  • Using robust and properly insulated tools (see BS EN 60900).

  • providing and using correct personal protective equipment (PPE) to reduce the risk of contact with live parts or earth, e.g., insulating gloves (see BS EN 60903) and insulating matting (see BS EN 61111). If there is a risk of burns from arcing or flashover that cannot be avoided, consider using adequately rated, thermally insulating, flame-resistant PPE (including face/eye protection) arc flash protective clothing. PPE should be frequently inspected and replaced if damaged. Requirements relating to PPE are covered by the Personal Protective Equipment at Work (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

PPE Inspection and Maintenance: Regular inspection and maintenance of PPE is essential to reduce the risk of accidents. Manufacturers state guidance on establishing effective maintenance regimes, considering the type and use of equipment.

Environments in which there is a potential exposure to electrical shock whilst working or performing tasks are but not limited to:

Electrical Utilities: Power generation plants, power substations, and power distribution facilities often use insulating gloves/boots/matting/blankets when working with high-voltage equipment.

Construction: Electrical installations or repairs.

Manufacturing: Facilities that produce electrical equipment or components, such as transformers, motors, and control panels.

Telecommunications: Installation and maintenance of communication infrastructure, including telephone and data lines.

Alternative Energy Generation: Renewable energy industry, such as wind and solar power generation, 

Electric Vehicles: Operating tasks with electrical components or batteries.

Railways: Electrified tracks or with overhead lines at high voltage.

Oil and Gas: Oil and gas extraction, refining and processing may use insulating PPE when operating electrical equipment in hazardous environments.

Emergency Services: Firefighters and other emergency responders may use insulating PPE when in situations of potential exposure to electrical hazards.

Research and Laboratories: Electrical equipment in laboratories.

Even incorrectly wiring a plug can be dangerous and lead to fatal accidents or fires.

The HSG85 document "Electricity at Work: Safe Working Practices" (Third Edition) serves as a comprehensive guide for ensuring electrical safety in the workplace. It covers a broad range of topics, including legal obligations, risk assessment, safe systems of work, competence and training, equipment maintenance, emergency procedures, and continuous improvement. Employers and individuals responsible for electrical safety should refer to the full document for detailed and specific guidance tailored to their circumstances.

Ian Thorp is from Rooba.