The Silent Threat in the Workplace: Is your business safe from electrical hazards?

16th May 2024

The Silent Threat in the Workplace: Is your business safe from electrical hazards?

Every year, R7 billion is paid out by the Compensation Fund and Rand Mutual Assurance to address occupational injuries and diseases in South Africa. This statistic highlights the pressing need for improved health and safety practices in workplaces across the country. This is because unfortunately, many of these accidents are caused by overlooked hazards.

According to Dr Andrew Dickson, engineering executive at CBI-electric: low voltage, almost all businesses in South Africa rely heavily on electrical equipment, yet exposure to it is one of the leading causes of death in the country. With this in mind, he urges employers to consider this and ensure that protective measures are in place.

“Electrical hazards can cause shocks, leading to a variety of injuries including burns, damage to internal organs, and muscle spasms. They can also result in secondary injuries from falls due to involuntary muscle contractions, especially dangerous while working on elevated platforms like ladders and scaffolds,” he adds. “Moreover, electrical safety threats can cause fires and explosions which may produce even greater harm to persons and property in the vicinity. Even something as innocuous as an incorrectly wired plug could be dangerous.”

Despite the lack of readily available South African data, Dr Dickson points to statistics from other countries such as the US, where electrical fatalities account for 6% of all workplace deaths and the majority of these deaths (70%) occur in non-electrical occupations. “Yet, electrical accidents are usually preventable.”

Below, he outlines five of the most common causes of electrical accidents in the workplace and how they could be mitigated:

Ground-faults: Under normal conditions, electricity flows in a closed circuit, traveling from the live to the neutral conductor. A ground fault occurs when this current escapes the circuit and travels to the ground instead. In these instances, the alternate electrical path to ground may be through the user, resulting in serious injuries or death. To prevent these, workplaces must ensure that all necessary circuits are protected by an earth leakage device, also known as ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). These units are designed to switch off (trip) the electric power in the event of a ground-fault in a maximum time of 0.3 seconds. They work by detecting imbalances in current flow between the live and neutral conductors. Additionally, as ground faults are commonly caused by wear and tear on electrical equipment, workers should perform visual inspections before use and decommission any machinery with frayed cords, missing ground pins, cracked casings, etc.

Overloaded Circuits: When too many appliances or machines are plugged into a single circuit, it can become overloaded. This can also happen when appliances or machines with high electrical current demands, like industrial heaters, laser cutters, or copiers, are plugged into circuits not designed for such loads, exceeding the circuit's capacity. When more electricity is drawn than a circuit can safely handle, it can cause the circuit wiring to overheat which could melt the wire insulation, damage equipment and lead to a fire. A circuit breaker, however, is a vital safety device that trips when the rated load current for a circuit is exceeded, thereby shutting off the power to the entire circuit to prevent damage. Over and above installing circuit breakers, overloading could be prevented with proper circuit planning to not only determine which circuits power which devices but also calculate the safe operating load current ratings of each circuit to get an understanding of the number of items that can operate on that circuit.

Voltage spikes: Electrical devices are designed to handle specific voltages but can be subjected to higher voltages than they are designed to handle, which can damage the equipment. Typical causes include damaged wiring, lightning, and switching, such as when electricity returns after load shedding. Businessowners should ensure that they have adequate surge protection devices (SPDs) in place. In the event of a large electrical spike, SPDs clamp the voltage, providing a path to ground where the excess energy is dumped, limiting it from spreading into the workplace, and thereby keeping the voltage at an acceptable level. These devices must also be checked on a regular basis to ensure that they are in good working order.

Counterfeit electrical products: Employers must ensure that the electrical products they install are the genuine article as most counterfeit lookalikes are unsafe and can even cost lives since they are typically made from inferior materials and do not meet the necessary conformance standards for public health and safety as well as for the protection of the operating environment. Commonly counterfeited items include terminal connector blocks, timing switches, circuit breakers and earth leakage devices, as well as multi-plugs and adapters. Buying recognised brands from reputable establishments and using compliant and trustworthy contractors for electrical work are critical for ensuring product authenticity and ultimately system integrity.

Lack of proper training on electrical safety procedures: When employees are aware of the risks around working with electricity and the safety measures that must be taken, it can go a long way towards ensuring that accidents are avoided. It could even mean the difference between life and death. Training could cover topics like identifying electrical hazards, safe work practices with electricity, and proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Injuries to personnel, damage to property, and insurance expenses alone will cost a company more than preventative measures ever will. These accidents can cause life-altering injuries or fatalities, making prevention not just a financial decision, but a moral imperative. Investing in mitigating electrical accidents now could save lives now and, in the future,” concludes Dr Dickson.

For more information, go to https://cbi-lowvoltage.co.za or follow CBI-electric: low voltage on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, X, Threads or YouTube.