Creating a Culture of Safety

Safety on the job is a contractor's top priority, but when time and budget constraints get tight, employees can sometimes cut corners and skip over safety protocols to get the job done.

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By Philip Santoro

Safety on the job is a contractor’s top priority, but when time and budget constraints get tight, employees can sometimes cut corners and skip over safety protocols to get the job done. But those seemingly harmless shortcuts can lead to compliance issues, equipment damage, injury or worse. To ensure proper and consistent adherence to safe electrical practices, business leaders must create a culture of safety where all employees are encouraged and supported to make the right decisions about electrical safety.

Take it from the Top and Bottom

As a business owner, the safety of employees is a critical necessity. To ensure employees follow safe electrical practices, contractors need to create a culture that promotes safety and discourages unnecessary risks. To achieve this cultural commitment, it requires both a top down and a bottom up approach.

Whether it’s a small seven-person contracting business or a large electrical utility, management has to buy in and empower employees to do the right thing. Workers who implement safety policies and practices on a daily basis are the ones who will need to make on-site decisions that can impact their safety and the safety of their coworkers. If an employee stops work because he feels he is in an unsafe situation, he needs to know he will be supported, not reprimanded, for making that decision.

Communicate Policies Frequently

Inexperienced or new employees may not know or fully understand the company’s commitment to safety, so it’s important to communicate it - along with the penalties for taking unnecessary risks - on a regular basis. Require every new worker to review and agree to safety regulations when hired, and consider reviewing their knowledge periodically to ensure they are well prepared.

You might make it a continuing education topic. Many contractors include safety in some form in their daily or weekly meetings. This can be as simple as posing a “code question of the day” when you pose a specific safety code question followed by group discussion. It’s also a good idea to review and discuss near-miss incidents in detail to identify any missteps or oversights to avoid in future. By making safety part of daily communications, the commitment to safe electrical practices will become ingrained.

Even senior electricians can benefit from ongoing discussion and education about electrical safety. Despite their experience, complacency is a common issue in this business. Seasoned electrical workers may go months or even years without experiencing a serious electrical incident. As a result, their attention to safety codes and regulated processes may decrease, potentially leading to hazardous situations. All electrical workers, regardless of experience, need to understand and practice safety at all times.

Provide Proper Personal Protective Equipment, but Understand its Limitations

Personal protective equipment (PPE) can be hot, uncomfortable and inconvenient. As a result, some workers don’t take it seriously and don’t wear it when they perceive the threat to be low. Others do just the opposite, relying too much on PPE to protect them. However, the method for rating PPE is based on a standard that reduces burn injuries to the point where they are survivable. Workers can still receive first or second degree burns, which is why PPE is the last line of defense - like an air bag in a car. It’s intended to help minimize the damage, not prevent it altogether.

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To be effective, PPE and protective equipment must be properly rated and used. In addition, the care, maintenance and regular testing of insulating gloves, blankets and sleeves is important. The test voltage is governed by ASTM standards and must be reviewed every six to 12 months.

It is the employer’s responsibility to provide employees with the tools and PPE they need to be safe. But, ensuring worker safety goes beyond providing adequate PPE. The best and first defense against shock or arc flash injury is to follow safe electrical practices and participate in frequent training.

Take Training and Education Seriously

As the old sports adage goes, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. That same concept can be applied here. As an industry, we’ve come a long way in understanding arc flash hazards, how to spot them, and more importantly, how to mitigate the damage. However, as evidenced by the more than 2,000 people hospitalized with severe arc flash burns each year, we still have a long way to go to properly educate, train and prevent arc flash injuries. Identifying arc flash hazards is a difficult process. Electrical professionals of all levels must take responsibility to ensure they receive appropriate training to recognize when they may be exposed and how to mitigate that exposure.

In the event a flash-over occurs, electrical workers may be the first responders on the scene. It’s imperative they be trained in emergency response procedures. This ranges from contact release techniques to move a person off the current, as well as first aid, resuscitation (CPR) and proper use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). This is not a once-and-done training; refresher training must be performed every one to two years to ensure electrical workers can properly administer these procedures when needed.

Because of the higher voltages they routinely encounter, the shock hazard is a primary concern for utility workers. These workers often operate in unique situations or locations such as in manholes, up in a box or in tunnels. These scenarios require specialized training in addition to standard emergency response education.

Celebrate and Incentivize Safety

A good safety record takes work. Sometimes the effort can seem tedious or feel like time wasted. To avoid that negativity, celebrate every safety milestone and reward employees who demonstrate dedication to safe work practices. Keep track of the days without any incidents and make it visible for everyone to see. Recognize individuals each month for their contributions. Consider incentivizing electrical workers to maintain the highest standards of safety. Incentives can include money, gift cards or branded jackets or hats, for example. Everyone appreciates being recognized, and by rewarding and celebrating safety, you’ll create a culture your workers can be proud of.

For an electrical contracting business, a record of safety is a competitive advantage. In an industry where injury is a very real possibility, businesses that can claim a high degree of safety are more attractive to potential employees. Project owners are also more likely to consider a bid from a reputable contractor with a low incidence rate. Likewise, businesses that are in compliance with safety regulations can avoid fines, and insurance rates will be lower. There’s no reason not to adopt safe electrical practices and every reason to do so.

Ensuring safety on the job is a constant process. It requires ongoing communication, frequent training, consistent compliance and significant expense. Creating a culture of safety ensures every employee, from bottom to top, is committed to safe electrical practices for the health and safety of themselves and their fellow workers. And that’s worth the effort.

About the author: Philip Santoro is the Contractor Segment Manager, Square D by Schneider Electric.

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