Over the past several months, the term “electrification” has made its way into national conversation. Simply put, electrification means converting the way a machine or system operates to the use of electrical power. As the term gains traction across industries, it has been acclaimed by many as a key pathway to combatting climate change by supplying a cleaner energy source and a foundation for producing more American jobs.
The increase in electric vehicle manufacturing is one example of the rise of electrification. In 2021, many leading auto manufacturers have already made significant commitments to producing electric vehicles that will substantially alter their portfolio of cars on the market. General Motors announced in January 2021 that it would phase out gas-powered cars and trucks and fully move to electric vehicles by 2035. Ford also made a multi-billion-dollar investment in electric vehicles earlier this year and expects 40 percent of its global sales to be from electric vehicles by 2030.
With this large influx of electric vehicles on the roads, it means that work will need to be done to strengthen America’s electric grid to support electric vehicle charging stations across the country. It also means that more auto mechanics will need to learn the safety precautions of servicing engines in close proximity to electric vehicle batteries. So, as electrical workers upgrade the grid, install more charging stations and repair more electric vehicles and chargers during regular maintenance schedules, risk for encountering electrical hazards will increase, as well.
Although it may seem like electric vehicles are dominating the current dialogue when it comes to electrification, it is not just the auto industry that is trending in this direction. Other industries are making the switch to electrification too. Factories, industrial parks, food processing and manufacturing sites are all increasingly turning to electric alternatives for their energy sources over the coming years. Powered electrical lines have high voltages which can cause major burns, electric shock and even life-threatening electrocution to workers, making electrical safety in work environments crucial. As more electrical workers go out into the field to meet the growing demand of electric power sources, it is critical they have the right PPE to help keep them safe.
Electrical Safety PPE
Rubber and Leather Gloves and Sleeves. When it comes to workers facing electrical risks, electric shocks and serious injuries most commonly occur when the proper work gloves are not used. There are three main glove categories workers typically rely on for their protection: insulating rubber gloves, leather glove protectors and insulating rubber sleeves.
Insulating rubber gloves are among the most important articles of protection for electrical workers against electrical shock hazards. Electrical insulating equipment is made of materials that block the transmission of electric charges so that no electricity up to a certain voltage can go through the material and rubber is the most commonly used insulator. Insulating rubber gloves comes in different lengths and hand sizes depending on the individual user’s needs and vary based on the level of voltage protection they provide.
When picking gloves for a specific task, workers should know the voltage they expect to encounter and choose the right glove accordingly. Insulating rubber gloves must be rated for the voltage to which a worker will be exposed and marked to indicate their rating [class 00 – resistance up to 500 V alternating current (AC)/proof tested to 2,500 V AC and 10,000 V direct current (DC) – through class 4 – resistance up to 36,000 V AC/proof tested to 40,000 V AC and 70,000 V DC].
In addition to insulating rubber gloves, it is necessary to provide a second physical barrier through the use of leather glove protectors to keep workers and their rubber gloves safe from cuts, tears or punctures. Leather glove protectors should never be used alone for protection against electric shock as serious injury or death will result. Even when a leather glove protector is being used, workers should always use the properly rated insulating rubber glove for the voltage being worked on.
Some workers, like utility electrical linemen who install or fix power lines, require additional PPE while on the job. It is highly recommended that they also wear insulating rubber sleeves to provide extended coverage of the arm, from the cuff of insulating rubber gloves to the shoulder. By using a sleeve, protection is enhanced against accidental arm contact with energized conductors and equipment.
Dielectric Footwear. Just as it is important to protect workers’ hands and arms from electrical hazards, protective footwear should also be used to protect workers’ feet. A considerable safety hazard that many electrical workers face is called step potential. Step potential is the way in which workers could experience an injury or electrocution by stepping near an energized, grounded object without actually touching the exposed power source on the ground.
To prevent against step potential, electrical workers should be equipped with dielectric footwear to provide high voltage protection and prevent charges from passing through workers’ bodies from the ground. Depending on the electrical job being performed, workers can choose from dielectric boots, intended for users who rely on a single boot for step potential protection, or overboots and overshoes, which are designed to be worn over daily industrial work boots.
Arc Flash Protection. Arc flash events are serious safety hazards that take the form of electrical explosions. There is a popular misconception that arc flash incidents do not happen often, when in fact 2,000 workers are admitted to burn centers for treatment of severe arc flash burns each year. These quick, explosive blasts can cause severe damage, including potential blindness or deafness and other hidden fatal injuries such as internal bleeding.
When an arc flash event occurs, it is caused by a short circuit where electricity travels outside of its planned path. Depending on the environment and associated voltage, the temperature of an arc flash can reach 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit—which is up to four times hotter than the sun. This means workers in potential arc flash environments, such as those who operate on electrical panels in buildings, need specialized PPE to prevent them from experiencing substantial consequences.
Arc flash PPE requires head-to-toe solutions. When workers don their PPE ahead of entering an environment with the potential for an arc flash, they need to be wearing protective garments like coats, bib overalls and coveralls made with arc flash resistant materials rated for the work and environment. Head, face and neck protection is critical too. Arc flash hoods are designed to cover the head, face and neck to protect against extreme temperatures and should always be worn in combination with the proper hard hat and face shield. When considering the right face shield to use, workers should opt for selections that ensure reliable visibility even in poorly lit rooms and anti-fog and anti-scratch coatings to guarantee lens longevity. For all arc flash PPE, workers should check their gear to make sure it meets required calories per centimeter squared ratings for their environments.
Creating a Safety-First Culture
Across industries that work with electric power, the ultimate goal for electrical safety PPE adoption is to meet 100 percent compliance among workers. To reach this goal and increase use, workers who use PPE daily need to have confidence that their equipment will protect them all shift long without causing discomfort throughout the day. By creating a safety-first culture, employers can instill the confidence needed to better prepare workers to prevent workplace injuries.
The first step in reaching higher adoption rates of electrical safety PPE is making sure workers know how and when to use different tools. Engaging workers in hands-on training sessions about how to ensure their equipment fits and is used properly can promote positive results and a safer working environment.
Knowing which PPE is right for different settings and how to wear it properly is necessary for increased electrical worker safety, but it is not the only way to prevent incidents from workplace hazards. Another necessary component of worker training should focus on how to take care of workers’ gear. To ensure functionality and extend the life span of critical electric safety PPE, daily inspection and regular cleaning is recommended.
For all electrical safety PPE, cleanliness matters to make sure equipment works the way it was intended. Dirt and grease can lower the effectiveness in preventing against electric shock for rubber and protective clothing, so it’s important that excessive dirt and grease do not build up. Electrical workers are also often in environments where they encounter rocks or stones while tending to electrical issues, so PPE should be checked before each use for rips or tears that could hinder performance or render the PPE ineffective.
Lastly, electrical safety PPE only works to its fullest potential when it fits and functions properly. Historically, electrical safety PPE has been bulky, heavy and limits workers’ mobility. To make sure electrical safety workers do not compromise their safety for productivity, more employers are investing in equipment that is designed with the end user top of mind. Manufacturers today are making improvements to the design of their electrical PPE products across the board, from gloves that offer increased agility to perform tasks to clothing that is produced with materials that enhance dry moisture wicking to allow better breathability in the fabric.
As industries move towards electrification for their power sources, electrical workers will be on the front lines to strengthen America’s electrical grid and install and maintain the necessary infrastructure. In doing so, we know that more workers will rely on electrical safety PPE, so it is important that they know the proper equipment to turn to in order to help keep them safe.