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Take Charge of Industrial Control Panel Safety

By Christine Torres

Electrical panel labels warn of hazards

Automation is increasingly improving efficiency in business while also creating a safer work environment for humans. Newer industrial control systems come with various technologies, so it is crucial to provide consistent safety training and communication when it comes to their maintenance. While some of these modern devices can help reduce incident energy or absorb and contain arc flash, they do not design out the need for safety signs and labels. During industrial control panel work, there is still potential for injury should an energized bolt and molten hot metal blast through the air in seconds. Keep visual communication on control panels current to maintain efficiency and optimal safety in any facility.

Keep Control Panels Current

Electrocutions kill an average of 140 industrial maintenance workers each year, according to the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health (eLCOSH). Half of these deaths are from incidences involving control panels, transformers, and other similar equipment. In a survey by Plant Services magazine, the top concerns regarding electricity were training non-electrical employees, training on electricity in general, and updating equipment with the latest safety methods and technologies. There are specific hazards in working in and around industrial control panels:

  • Electrical – Voltages of 50V or more can penetrate human skin and can cause heart fibrillation. If the skin is wet, voltages lower than 40 can be lethal.
  • Arc flash – Light, heat, and debris from an electric arc can cause damage, fire, and severe injuries.

Arc flash and electrical dangers are present any time a worker gets near control panel equipment. Visual cues help troubleshoot problems and are necessary to complement an up-to-date schematic. Signs help inform personnel of what is behind the control panel door, such as the type of voltage and whether it is live. Signs also provide instructions, such as terminating power before working or offer reminders, such as to allow metals in panels to cool before touching. PPE warning and requirement placards are also extremely important for communicating safe work practices.

Industrial maintenance manager Sean Baker of Clovis, California, said nearly every maintenance person has come across a panel where the wrong markings or labels were not only on the outside of the control panel box, but the inside as well. He said this can be caused by a worker who does not have proper knowledge or training, equipment upgrades or changes, or even by an overeager person rushing to try to keep facility communication and safety in compliance. When performing maintenance, workers should be able to process information on the panel in a single glance. When a panel has labels that are consistent, organized, and clear, a user can quickly focus on the section with which they need to work. Facility managers can also enhance safety by creating boundaries for electrical work spaces with floor marking.

“During an arc flash, the blast radius can be all the way around a panel not just what’s in front of the panel,” Baker said. "Signs and labels, and even floor marking, can be helpful."

Industrial training instructor Don Fitchett affirms the importance of informative visual communication such as signs, labels, floor marking, and wire wraps for control panel work. “They all are standard in both old and new designs,” Fitchett said. While floor marking is not a requirement, Fitchett says world-class manufacturers such as Boeing and Toyota mark their safety zones as part of control panel safety.

Floor marking alerts caution near control panels

Visual communication inside panel boxes also helps boost disaster planning. Should an emergency occur, such as a flood or storm, facility panel maintenance workers can easily navigate a current wiring diagram. They can also work more efficiently when they can quickly assess a panel that is clearly and efficiently labeled to match the diagram. Short, bold messages can help with less illumination in events such as limited power. 

Energize Employee Safety

Utilize project management and consistent training to increase workplace safety with control panel maintenance that includes organization and clear visual communication. For control panel safety and compliance, facilities should follow all applicable sections of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the National Electrical Manufacturer's Association (NEMA).

Properly label hardware and wiring in an industrial control panel to meet the National Electrical Code. Teach workers the importance of lockout/tagout for all electrical equipment and ensure ongoing training. Greater safety and hazard mitigation that is continuous can help facilities achieve major gains in productivity from control systems.

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