How Prevention through Design Improves Worker Safety in the Electrical Workplace

Safety is a constant state of mind on the job floor and in the workplace, often woven into a company’s culture. Safety begins with design-first thinking. Safety by design is an achievable intervention that improves worker health and safety.

Designing to eliminate or avoid hazards altogether, before any exposure happens in the workplace, is also the top priority in the hierarchy of risk controls common to industry safety professionals. Known as Prevention through Design (PtD), it includes all efforts to envision and eliminate hazards to workers in facilities, the processes and procedures, as well as the tools, equipment, products and new technologies that come in contact with the people in the workplace .

Today, just about every manufacturing process has a multitude of inherent potential safety risks, so it’s important to identify and minimize hazards from the very beginning. It’s also becoming common for PtD approaches to attempt to solve for uncertainty, in that the actual safety of a technology or use of a product largely depends on the behavior of workers in and during the process. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the responsibility for electrical workplace safety.

With Prevention through Design, new technologies and products attempt to reduce human exposure to hazards as much as possible to achieve higher levels of safety. When looking to eliminate the problem, there are times when it’s best to design for the safety of the user. This requires design engineers to work closely with and understand the needs of safety managers as well as qualified electrical operators and maintenance workers who use the products and devices daily. The goal of PtD is to make electrical infrastructure safe for all workers throughout the entire lifecycle of the facility, which necessitates designing for safety during normal plant operations and routine maintenance but especially—and probably most importantly—for abnormal service and repair situations.

Safer and More Productive Workplaces

Within the arena of electrical safety in the workplace, product development by way of PtD is achieving safe workplace while increasing productivity. Several PtD product examples include permanently mounted voltage indicators, voltage portals, data access ports, infrared (IR) windows for thermal inspection and absence of voltage testers. The process of de-energizing and verifying equipment is in an electrically safe work condition before beginning work can prevent electrical incidents.

A study found that the most common work task leading to arc-flash injury was replacing fuses without turning off the power and verifying that the fuses were de-energized. The data also indicated that there may have been a lack of training and judgment by those injured, underscoring the need for emphasis on creating an electrically safe work condition that includes a process of voltage testing before beginning work. Because this process occurs frequently in the workplace, it is worthwhile to examine whether it can be optimized using PtD methodology.

The PtD case for electrical safety can be easily made. It has been well documented that using PtD principles is one of the most effective and reliable methods of protecting workers from electrical hazards. The point remains: thinking about safety in the design phase for all tasks that occur through the lifecycle of a product can be more easily (and often more economically) addressed by design solutions rather than relying on administrative controls such warnings, labels, training, written procedures and personal protective equipment (PPE). Administrative controls and PPE, as opposed to design engineered solutions, will still protect workers from some electrical hazards, but de-energizing equipment needs to be a clear, reliable and uncomplicated process when verifying absence of voltage.

While the number of fatal workplace electrical injuries has fallen over the past 20 years, the trend with non-fatal electrical injuries is less consistent. Determining voltage status before equipment is accessed and preventing direct exposure to electrical hazards can be achieved with an absence of voltage tester (AVT) that also simplifies this process by automating the voltage verification process. It’s important to point out that when establishing an electrically safe work condition, verifying the absence of voltage is only one step in the process—using an AVT is a part of the lockout/tagout process and is not intended to replace it.

Preventing Hazards by Design

Today, safety managers are challenging electrical infrastructure suppliers to create even better methods of identifying and verifying de-energized electrical equipment that conform to the NFPA 70E standards. Every safety manager’s top priority is to provide a workplace free from serious safety and health hazards, ensuring that the workplace is fully in compliance with all applicable standards, rules and regulations to maintain safety in their manufacturing facility.

It is important to establish and promote designing for safety and begin to incorporate PtD products that protect workers into the overall plant safety program. Most importantly, when safety is addressed in the design process, it is more effective and can prove to be a more economical safety play in the long run for the facility. When the benefits of PtD can improve worker productivity, create faster maintenance and less downtime, then the facility—and everyone in it—wins.

The safety culture is changing and the responsibilities for safety will be shared across the facility among its workers. Preventing hazards by design is a priority for facility owners and the team responsible for maintaining safety management standards. Thanks to PtD, new technology, such as AVTs, will continue to play a major role in electrical hazard reduction strategies in plants that achieved improved safety and productivity for workers responsible for electrical energy.

Rachel Bugaris is a business development manager at Panduit Corp., a provider of network infrastructure and industrial electrical wiring solutions. Her work focuses on electrical safety solutions for the workplace.

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