I begin my electrical safety classes with a question: “Why Are You Here Today?” After the inevitable “the boss made me” answer, we attempt to answer this question. Is it compliance? Policy? Insurance? These responses are always discussed, but ultimately, they don’t answer the question of why or identify our purpose.
What about “To Raise Awareness of the Dangers of Electrical Work?” It’s a good answer that certainly moves us closer to answering the question, but it doesn’t quite get us all the way there.
The answer to the question “Why Are You Here Today” is, in my opinion, to create a habit of practicing electrical safety. While compliance, policy, insurance, and awareness certainly drive the conversation, these factors don’t create the actions that make us safe. To be safe, we must practice safety, and practicing safety consistently over time leads to positive habits that become ingrained in our behavior.
I like to use what I call the Seatbelt Analogy to make my point. Roughly 30 years ago, wearing a seatbelt became law in most states. Many people, like me, didn’t wear seatbelts before it became the law. I started wearing a seatbelt because I didn’t want to receive a fine. For me, it had nothing to do with safety. Fast forward 30 years to today. I wear my seatbelt every time I get in my truck. I don’t even remember the act of putting on my seatbelt. It has become such an automatic habit that my left arm is almost programmed to reach back and buckle up the moment I sit down in the driver’s seat. If for some reason I don’t feel the seatbelt across my chest, I don’t feel safe, and I immediately put on the seatbelt. It started as a compliance behavior, but over time and repetition became a safety behavior.
I believe we can do the same with electrical safety. Many of the safety principles we teach are simple, just like buckling up is simple. In the same way, many of these simple safety principles make a big difference in lowering or eliminating the risks we undertake.
Knowing why a certain rule is in place goes a long way toward buying into it. Wearing seatbelts has been proven to significantly reduce the chances of death or injury in a car accident, and since wearing them is an easy and unobtrusive action to take, it has been the law in every state for decades. The same concept applies to electrical safety. Shutting off the power eliminates the risk of shock or arc flash. If shutting off the power is not an option, PPE has also been proven to significantly lower the risk of both events. Each of these habits can be formed over time.
We know that driving a car involves a certain amount of risk. Over 40,000 people are killed each year in accidents and thousands more are severely injured. We also know that wearing a seat belt can significantly lower this risk.
In turn, we know that electrical work contains risk. Thousands of workers are severely injured or killed every year while working on electrical equipment. We also know that we can eliminate the risk by shutting off the power or significantly reduce risk by using PPE when working on live electrical equipment.
Going back to the seatbelt analogy, if the seatbelt is stored in the trunk underneath the spare tire, it would be much more difficult to use. What if putting on the seatbelt involved opening the trunk, removing the spare tire, removing the seatbelt, putting the spare tire back, and installing the seatbelt in the driver’s seat? How often would we wear our seatbelt? Probably never.
For safety behavior to become habitual, we must keep it simple. Overcomplicating it leads to a negative outlook toward the action, and, ultimately, not engaging in the safe behavior. With electrical safety, our policies toward de-energizing equipment, donning PPE, conducting safety briefings, and filling out work permits must be made simple and straightforward enough to compel us to follow them. Otherwise, the policies and procedures may have the opposite effect of creating a more dangerous environment.
Wearing my seatbelt some of the time didn’t create the habit. Doing it every time formed a habit. Create a simple, uncomplicated procedure for reducing the risk of working around electrical hazards and then apply that procedure every time you engage in this type of work. Even if you follow it in the beginning just for compliance reasons, over time it will become automatic and you won’t feel safe without it.
Thank you for your time. Mitchell & Lindsey offers Arc Flash Risk Assessments and Electrical Safety Training. If we can be of service to you in these areas or if you have any questions about this article, please reach out to me at the email or phone number below.