Job site electrical risks: Do you know what’s dangerous?

by Alex on October 14, 2014

Did you know that electrocutions are the fourth leading cause of death among construction workers in the US? The UK has a better track record, with only about three builders electrocuted each year while refurbishing domestic or commercial buildings. Still, many people overlook the dangers inherent in working near electricity.

Not sure whether you’re at risk in your job? Here are a few things to look out for.

230V Mains Lines

Contact with a 230V main can be fatal; and if it’s not fatal, it can cause severe burns. It’s absolutely crucial that you kill the power running through as many mains as possible during refurbishment work, and that you know the locations of the mains lines, both above- and underground. Even if you’re not doing electrical work, this is an important consideration; many of the people who suffer electrical injuries during refurbishment aren’t electricians.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to be working on mains lines for them to be a danger; if you’re using any tools that are powered by mains, an electrical fault or damage to your tools could cause a dangerous situation. If there are mains around, it’s a good idea to have an electrician on hand to ensure your safety.

Extension Leads

Getting power to your tools on the job site can be a challenge, and extension leads are very commonly the solution to the problem. However, these useful leads are known for being electrical hazards; because they’re often stretched out over long distances, they can get stepped on, rolled over, and otherwise damaged, making them more prone to electrical faults (this is one reason why it’s important to use rubber protector mats when the leads cross walkways). The leads getting tangled can also damage the conductors.

When using extension leads, it’s a good habit to check that the leads and plugs are well insulated, that there are no breaks in the casing, and that the fuses in the lead plugs have the correct rating for the equipment being used. And whenever possible, use battery-operated, cordless tools that don’t require the use of extension cords. If that’s not an option, consider using a portable generator so you don’t have to run extension cords across the site.

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Fire Hazards

Many electrical devices can pose fire hazards, especially if there’s heat involved; heaters (including portable ones), lights, and packing equipment can all cause fires if they suffer electrical faults or other malfunctions. Even household devices like washing machines, tumble dryers, and boilers can pose risks. Using any of these devices or other heat-producing ones during construction or refurbishment can be dangerous, so keep both workers and families away from them whenever possible.

These fire hazards can be especially dangerous in highly flammable or explosive atmospheres. If there’s spray painting going on nearby, if work on gas lines is being done, if vehicle refueling is taking place, or if there’s a chance that other flammable chemicals are in the air, don’t use any electrical equipment that could pose a fire risk and be sure to use equipment that’s designed to not create sparks.

Broken Bulbs

If a light bulb is broken, the exposed filament could pose an electrical hazard, potentially causing a shock or a fire. Using bulb guards is a good start, and will reduce the risk of a shattered bulb, but it’s also important to be aware of bulbs in places that could subject them to risk of breakage. Making sure that bulbs with the correct wattage are used in rated sockets and that they’re screwed in tightly also decreases risk.

Unfortunately, bulbs often get overlooked when surveying a workplace for electrical hazards. By putting in place a system that encourages builders and other workers to regularly check bulbs for breakages, many bulb-related injuries can be prevented. And use extra precaution when changing broken bulbs—unplug the light, cut power if necessary, and wear proper equipment.

Outdoor Work

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Working with and around electricity is always dangerous, but working outdoors can compound the risks. It’s much easier for equipment to get wet when it’s outside, potentially making it live—even equipment that isn’t usually an electrical hazard can be dangerous if it gets wet. There’s also a greater risk of damage to tools and leads, which can lead to electrical faults.

To make an outdoor work environment less prone to electrical hazards, it’s important to make frequent checks of all equipment that uses an electrical power supply for faults or blown fuses, as well as to take extra precautions around overhead power lines, buried cables, and other potential sources of electric current.

Don’t Become a Statistic

Working with or around electricity is dangerous, and thousands of people every year pay the price; some escape with minor shocks, but others aren’t so lucky. By taking the time to educate yourself about job site electrical risks and making a point to keep a close eye on the issues mentioned above, you’ll help create a safer work culture and reduce the risk of electrical injury both to yourself and your coworkers.

Image credits: Stephanus Riosetiawan, Matt Kowal, Wayne National Forest via flickr.

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