Electricity in the Workplace
Electricity in the Workplace
Electrical hazards exist in almost all workplaces, from offices to hospitals and construction sites. Each year throughout Australia there are numerous electrical accidents at work involving electric shock, many of which are fatal.
An electric shock is defined as the effect when an electrical circuit and the current flows through a person's body.
This article examines the dangers of electricity, prevention methods, and ways to identify electric hazards.
Note: there is a difference between electric shock and electrocution - the latter is death from electric shock.
Dangers of Electricity
There are many causes of electric shock and electrocution within the workplace the most common is contact with overhead wires. This occurs when people misjudge the height or distance between the ground and overhead wires when carrying equipment such as poles and ladders. Other frequent causes of electrical injuries include:
- not isolating the electrical supply
- working on 'live' electrical equipment
- inadequate maintenance
The Queensland Industrial Relations department warns that even if you survive an electric shock, there can be serious side effects, including:
- Eye damage
- Partial loss of limb function
- Neurological disorders such as confusion and memory loss
- Injuries caused after the shock (eg falling off a ladder or contact with moving machinery).
Other side effects can include muscle spasms, respiratory arrest, cardiac arrest, and uncoordinated contractions of the heart.
According to SA WorkCover most electrical injuries can be avoided by a combination of factors such as:
- safe work practices
- maintaining electrical installations and appliances
The following is a list of practical steps employers and employees can take to prevent electrical injuries:
- Maintain equipment and appliances through regular inspection. Look for any damage such as flickering, smoke, popping, hot fuses etc. A safety checklist may be useful when carrying out inspections of electrical equipment.
- Disconnect broken appliances and have broken power points or frayed cords replaced immediately.
- Know the location of the main electricity supply in case of emergency.
- Keep electrical appliances away from water and wet areas. Never touch switches or power points with wet/damp hands.
- Don't overload circuits and fuses by using too many appliances from the one power point.
- Keep electrical cords off the floor to reduce the risk of damage from contact with sharp objects or drag.
- Have a system of work in place where the location of cables (overhead, underground) is determined before digging, drilling etc.
- Reduce the voltage - limit the supply voltage to the lowest needed to get the job done or where electrically powered tools are used, battery operated are safest.
- All electrical equipment should be designed and manufactured in accordance with Australian Standards AS3000 and AS3100.
Identifying electrical hazards
Identifying and assessing electric hazards are two key factors in preventing electrical injuries.
To identify electric hazards SA WorkCover recommends you:
- 'Conduct walk-through inspections of workplace using a checklist to identify potential electrical hazards. This checklist may include but is not limited to checking all flexible supply cords, electrical plant, the way the electrical plant is used and the areas that they are used in.
- Ask employees if they have ever had any problems with electrical plant, such as equipment running erratically.
- Check records of electrical injuries and incidents which have occurred in the workplace or in similar workplaces.
- Look at incident reports, first aid registers and near-miss reports.'
Once the hazards in your workplace have been identified you need to assess the risk to workers. Consider how likely each risk is to occur, and how serious a danger it presents.
Two guides can be used to identify, assess and provide preventative solutions to workplace hazards in the office or on-site.
Hazard Profile: Identification Tool for Electrical Hazards on-site from NSW WorkCover is a tool to assist in the identification of OHS hazards in relation to electrical hazards on-site. The Hazard Profiles were developed following interviews with major contractors and subcontractors, they include general planning, excavation, roofing and more.
Office Electrical Safety from Comcare highlights electrical hazards in an office environment and offers possible solutions. Hazards listed include jams in photocopiers, liquid spillages, extension leads, and more.
When an assessment indicates that a worker could potentially be at risk from using electrical equipment then the use of a residual current device (RCD) should be considered.
A RCD or safety switch detects some, but not all, faults in an electrical system and quickly switches off the supply. SA WorkCover provides a list of generally identifiable risks that do require RCD protection:
Types of Electrical Equipment Requiring RCD Protection
- Hand held electrical equipment
- Power tools, hairdryers, kitchen accessories
- Portable electrical equipment that is moved whilst in operation
- Floor polishers, vacuum cleaners, portable lighting
- Electrical equipment that is moved between operations, where damage to the electrical equipment or supply cord could occur
- Overhead projectors, portable computers, welding machines, extension cords, power boards, electrical equipment on trolleys moved from location to location
- Electrical equipment that is used in an environment where damage to the appliance or the electricity supply to that appliance could affect the safe operation
- Electrical equipment used in wet or dusty environments, outdoors, on construction & demolition sites, in kitchens and laboratories (chemical damage)
It is recommended that RCDs be tested every 3 months in all workplace environments.
See the WA Safetyline guide for further information on protection and installation of RCDs.
Employers have a legal duty of care to all employees to ensure that they are safe from injury and risks to health in the workplace. This responsibility includes taking action to eliminate or minimise electrical hazards.
Please refer to your State authority for detail on individual legislation.