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4 Hazards of the Electric Power Industry & How to Eliminate Them

By Lucas Wiseman

worker reviewing wall of electrical readouts and safety labels

Electric utility hazards can be as diverse as the sources from which they derive their energy, but whether in renewable or legacy fossil fuel facilities, the following four issues cause the most injuries and fatalities per year.

  1. Electrocution

  2. Falls

  3. Confined Spaces (engulfment)

  4. Fires and Explosions

The number of non-fatal electrical injuries rose to 2,480 in 2015, the highest since 2009, and working in the power generation industry results in fatal injury to 17 power generation workers per year.

The following power plant safety tips stand in direct opposition to the four primary hazards workers are faced with and offer easy-to-implement solutions that can boost productivity and limit risk.

 

Tip 1: Implement the Hierarchy of Controls To Reduce Risk

In the 2018 edition of NFPA 70E, the National Fire Prevention Agency clarifies the Hierarchy of Controls found in previous editions. While not required by law, the 70E standard is considered the model for OSHA safe work practices.

Large outdoor arc flash labels

The controls are:

  1. Elimination - moving a power control station from a raised platform to ground level, ensuring that the fall hazard no longer exists.

  2. Substitution - replacing a severe hazard with a less severe one. For example, using textured floor tape instead of floor paint to reduce risk of a slip and fall.

  3. Engineering Controls - employing a physical barrier that protects workers from a hazard. Examples include machine guards, railings, or locked-out machines.

  4. Awareness - providing information to allow employees to make safe decisions through clear and obvious signage, specific machine training, and other education.

  5. Administrative Controls - using specific policies (like powering down a machine before maintenance) to limit employee exposure to a hazard.

  6. a well labeled electrical control cabinet

    Personal Protective Equipment - using protective clothing and equipment to limit employee injuries from a harmful event, like arc rated clothing or a fall harness.

It is important to note that PPE is the last solution in the hierarchy. It is the final line of defense between a worker and common power plant hazards. The first five steps are about preventing the hazard from ever occurring, while the sixth is assuming the worst case scenario (the hazard still exists and may harm the worker) and tries to mitigate risk.

In a power plant or substation however, eliminating a hazard can be infeasible or create more problems than it solves. Because of that, OSHA provides expanded standards that pertain to the five remaining pieces of the hierarchy, which will be covered in Tip 2.

Tip 2: Implement the Expanded OSHA Standard for the Power Generation Industry

29 CFR 1910.269 outlines specific rules for the power generation industry. 

Lockout/Tagout

glove-protected hand holds a durable lockout tag on padlock

Preventing electrocution through a LO/TO procedure should be a high priority for any power generation industry. The specific LO/TO rules can be found in 1910.269(d). OSHA clarifies that a facility following LO/TO procedures found in 1910.147 will be deemed to comply with paragraph (d) of 1910.269. However, given that many pieces of equipment cannot be deenergized and locked out, we have highlighted the specific information relating to tags.

1910.269(d)(2)(ii)(A) - If an energy isolating device is not capable of being locked out, the employer's program shall use a tagout system.

1910.269(d)(3)(ii)(F) - Tagout devices shall warn against hazardous conditions if the machine or equipment is energized and shall include a legend such as the following: Do Not Start, Do Not Open, Do Not Close, Do Not Energize, Do Not Operate.

1910.269(d)(3)(ii)(A) - Lockout devices and tagout devices shall be capable of withstanding the environment to which they are exposed for the maximum period of time that exposure is expected.

A DuraLabel printer can be a very useful tool when creating tags that meet these requirements. In particular the Toro and the Kodiak can produce the right size, the right color labels, and meet the durability requirements.

equipment arc flash warning label

Arc Flash Hazards

Arc Flashes are extraordinarily dangerous, particularly given the extremely large currents that a power generation worker might interact with. To boost safety, OSHA requires the following additional arc flash protections:

1910.269(g)(2)(ii) - When a worker is at risk of exposure to an arc flash, the PPE used to protect them, including fall protection devices, must not melt or ignite when exposed to the maximum potential heat energy a particular hazard can produce.

Falls

Fall hazards affect employees both on the ground and working up high. In a case where an employee is working with his or her boots off the ground, and is at risk of exposure to fire or arc flash, 1910.269(g)(2)(ii) applies.

anti-slip floor tape on a movable cart adds extra foot traction

Fall protection equipment: "shall be capable of passing a drop test equivalent to 4000 lbs after exposure to an electric arc with a heat energy of 40 plus or minus 5 cal/cm squared."

When boots are on the ground, PathFinder floor tape can help prevent slipping and falls by adding extra traction to areas where a fall might occur.

Confined Spaces

OSHA's regulations for confined space entry are nearly identical for the industry standard and the power generation industry. The standard notes that any facility following the general standard found in 1910.146 will be considered to be in compliance with the 1910.269 standard for confined spaces as well.

 

Tip 3: Implement the 5S System: Everyone Knows Where Everything Goes

The 5S system is a Japanese strategy for boosting safety and efficiency in a warehouse or power station. The entire system is worth a look and more information can be found here, but for the purposes of this article we will focus on the second S, “Set in Order.”

Sometimes also called “Systemize” or “Simplify,” the aim of this section is to “organize, arrange, and identify everything in a work area, as well as throughout the facility.” The main purpose of “Set in Order” for the power generation industry is to remove the temptation to “just do it quickly,” when PPE cannot be easily obtained.

Reaching out to flip a switch is a simple action that can be taken on impulse, but if a worker crosses an arc flash restricted approach boundary to do it, they can be putting their lives in jeopardy. It is much better to have a clearly visible rack of shotgun sticks or face shields right next to the hazard, labeled and easy to grab, than to allow temptation to fester.

“Set in Order” also promotes safety habits in the workforce. If all workers in a facility know that the properly rated face shields are always stored in the locker with the green identification labels, there is less of a chance that a piece of PPE insufficient for the hazard is picked up by mistake. Not to mention, it helps create the habit of putting equipment away in its proper place.

Implementing these three solutions in your power plant’s safety manual will bring you closer to hitting safety goals and reducing injury. To learn more about the safety solutions that can be utilized by the power generation industry, please consider one of the following resources.