Preventing electrical mishaps
Completing the Safety Circuit
Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Safety and Occupational Health Office
Oh, great, another electrical safety article, right? Go ahead, roll your eyes now; get it over with. Then think about why the topic bores you. Is it because you’ve heard about electrical safety since you were a kid? Is it because you use electrical tools, equipment, toys and appliances every day? Or is it because you trust the builders, manufacturers and installers so much that you feel protected? After all, there are codes and laws to keep you safe. Actually, the truth behind these notions has probably gone a long way toward keeping you alive to read this. Sometimes, avoiding injury or death is just by luck, and the Army’s accident records show that luck tends to run out regularly.
Every year, dozens of electrical accidents occur across the Army. The results range from death or serious injury of Soldiers and civilians to the loss of necessary equipment and facilities. You don’t want to lose a buddy because you didn’t warn them about pulling the third pin off an extension cord plug. And you certainly don’t want to lose your gear and personal stuff because you had too many things plugged in, overloading the circuit and causing a fire.
Electrical accidents can happen anywhere. In forward-deployed locations, they can be especially bad because temporary or refurbished facilities often have nonstandard power systems that make it easier for mistakes to happen. Losing a Soldier in a mishap affects everyone in the unit and the mission readiness of the whole organization. Despite the demands and inherent risks associated with combat training, protecting our personnel and preventing accidents must become a primary concern for each individual.
Accidents involving Soldiers getting shocked or killed usually occur when either the Soldier contacts exposed electrical equipment, or the power system or equipment is improperly grounded or bonded. To help prevent shocks and electrocutions, take the following steps:
- Replace broken electrical equipment or have it repaired by a qualified person. Broken or cracked outlets, tool housings and cuts or tears in wire insulation can allow an electric current to make contact with your skin.
- Keep guards on all electrical equipment and power systems, especially covers. Circuit breakers/fuse boxes must have front covers and access panels for computers, amplifiers and other equipment which must be kept in place while powered.
- Don’t try to fix power equipment yourself unless you are trained and certified, especially if it is energized.
- Stay away from power lines. It doesn’t matter if it’s a local distribution line or a main trunk line carrying thousands of volts; a couple of seconds of this power can kill you.
- Never remove the grounding pin from a three-prong electrical plug and don’t use two-prong adapters unless approved by an electrician. The grounding wire is there in case the power jumps to the tool or equipment housing. It will take the power away from you. If it is not connected, the power goes through you.
- Know and follow the grounding or bonding rules for all power equipment and check grounding and bonding equipment before each use. Those with nonmetal cases or housings usually don’t need grounding and only have a two-prong plug. Power equipment and appliances with metal housings (refrigerators, air conditioners, generators, washing machines, etc.) normally need a grounding conductor (wire/strap). Bonding is electrically connecting the metal housings of two separate appliances and can be used to connect to ground.
- Before the first use of a facility, and periodically afterward, check all grounded outlets to make sure the ground is working. Inexpensive plug-in testers can be used in addition to requesting inspections by the facility operator’s electricians.
- If you feel any shock while using electrical equipment or when contacting water or metal parts of a building, report it immediately and keep others away until you know it is safe.
Most property damage electrical accidents result in fires. There are a few main causes for this type of accident — too many items plugged in to one outlet, loose/broken connections and improper use of equipment. Steps to prevent the most common causes of electrical fires include:
- Don’t plug in multiple devices to a single outlet and never plug one power strip into another (daisy-chaining). Each computer, radio, DVD player, etc., plugged into the outlet may require minimal power, but all of them combined add to the resistance of the circuit and the amount of current running in the wire. Make a schedule for everyone in the room to take turns charging or using their equipment.
- Use the right size extension cords for your equipment. If the wire feels hot when you’re using the equipment, it’s probably too thin and should be replaced with a heavy-duty cord. Some equipment, such as an air conditioner, is not recommended for use with any extension cord because it draws too much power.
- Make sure plugs fit tightly into outlets. If an electrical outlet is loose and won’t hold a plug firmly, or if the plug isn’t pushed all the way in, the loose connection can cause a very small arc that constantly jumps from the outlet to the metal blade of the plug. This can build up heat quickly and cause a fire.
- If electrical equipment has vents, do not block the openings or place the item on loose clothes or bedding. Always turn off equipment when you leave. If you’re charging batteries, place on a nonflammable (metal or concrete) surface.
- If any piece of equipment sparks, smokes or feels unusually hot, stop using it and have it checked by qualified personnel.
The best way to protect yourself and your team is to rely on smarts, not luck. Learning the hazards of electrical systems can provide the required knowledge to ensure your operations and facilities are safe.
Did You Know?
The Electrical Safety Foundation International has designated the month of May as National Electrical Safety Month to raise awareness about critical electrical safety topics.