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Safety Check: Electrical Safety Basics & Tips – Part I
Electrical Safety: Extension cords and other cords can pose major safety risks if used improperly. Discover how one of your biggest fire hazards could be in plain view and what you can do about it.
By Jary Winstead
Date Posted: 4/1/2016
Extension cords and other cords can pose major safety risks if used improperly. Discover how one of your biggest fire hazards could be in plain view and what you can do about it.
The reduction of electrical and wiring hazards needs to be top priority in your workplace, and your safety committee and management team should be well versed on electrical hazard awareness. These hazards should be top priority during your quarterly safety inspections. In regards to workplace safety, there are three main reasons why electrical hazards must be a top priority – physical hazards, fire hazards and enforcement citations.
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) Fatality Report 2013-2014 shows a total of 4,679 workplace fatalities and 156 of those were directly attributed to electrocution. Obviously, electricians and apprentices have a higher fatality rate due to electrocution. Your company’s compliance to The Control of Hazardous Energy Standard, or Lockout – Tagout Program is critical in accident prevention.
According to national statistics, electrical and wiring problems are the primary cause of industrial fires. Overheating cords and motors are often the cause of industrial fires, especially when you add-in a combustible component, such as wood dust.
A great example comes to mind, just from last week. While completing an inspection in a machine shop, the machine operator requested me to inspect a heater that had recently overheated and caught fire. When inspecting the extension cord, there were two indicators of a problem.
The first concern was that the extension cord was rated at 10 amps, and the heater at 15 amps. The second concern was when taking the plug-end apart, the wiring had been pulled away from the live connector within the plug, and the live wire had been arcing within the plug-end. Either factor could have easily caused an industrial fire. Luckily, the employees were in the machine shop when the event occurred.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Citations
When reviewing the OSHA’s top 10 most frequently cited standards, electrical citations rate both number eight and ten. The two standards cited are 1910.305 - Electrical, Wiring Methods and 1910.303 - Electrical, General Requirements.
Without a doubt, electrical hazards are one of my most common hazards noted on a safety inspection. In completing an inspection, I cannot recall one inspection where I was not able to find an electrical hazard, even when in an office environment. Soft wired power equipment, portable power tool cords, computer workstations and extension cords are a common hazard location. Cords are quite often damaged due to improper handling and care.
Power Cords Are Overlooked Problems Waiting to Happen
One of the most common fire or safety hazard in many workplaces are equipment cords and extension cords that are improperly used or are not in good working order. What your employees do with cords can impact the lifespan of equipment and motors as well as put your business at risk. All it takes is a little forethought to ensure that you are using cords properly. The following are some of the key problems that I see on routine inspections.
Cords are unplugged improperly, being pulled by the cord and not the cord’s end when being unplugged from an outlet. (See figure 1)
Cords are rapped too tight, suspended, or stretched creating a stress on the outer casing and points of connection. Employees need to be educated on the proper way to store an electrical cord. Wrapping cords too tight will damage the outer casing, and stress the connecting points. (See figure 2) Suspended cords need to have stress relief to prevent the cord from pulling apart. Utilize a strain relief outer casing or webbing to relieve the tension on the cord.
Cords are improperly stored, left out on the floor becoming a trip hazard, and driver over by equipment. Cords left out on the floor are destined for damage. Forklifts driving over them, tools dropped on cords, welding slag on cords and cords continually stepped on will not last long. Resituate equipment, add outlet sources to reduce the need for extension cords and always store cords when not in use.
Portable tool cords are wrapped too tightly, straining the cord where it enters the tool. This is one of the most common causes of tool damage. The tool cord is wrapped in such a way that the cord is stored under stress, and the outer insulation casing splits, and the wiring is pulled out of the casing. (See figure 3) Employees need to know that allowing a little slack at the cord’s connection to the tool will lessen the strain on the cord.
Extension cords used as a permanent power supply. Extension cords are not intended as a permanent source to carry current. These cords are often strung through doorways, under combustibles, such as pallets or boxes, nailed to ceilings, hung by staples, or being continually damaged by traffic. (See figure 4) These cords are often overloaded, causing fire hazards, and premature electrical motor failure. Many do not understand that using an electrical motor through an extension cord of lower amperage will shorten the life of an electrical motor.
Use cords with grounds. Tools used in wet environments, and those with a third prong, or ground, must have a cord that has a three prong plug to be properly grounded. Extension cords that are not three prong have no place in an industrial environment. Adapters that remove the ground should never be used. These adapters prevent proper tool grounding and increase an electrocution hazard. Use only properly grounded tools in wet environments.
Never use a conductive component, such as a junction box or electrical box, to make an extension cord or outlet. These at one time were common in industry. (See figure 5) When used in a wet environment, or in the event of a loose connection within the electrical box, the user would be exposed to an electrocution hazard.
Cord Repairs. Repairing extension cords with an approved Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) adapter end is quite acceptable, but making your own cords or multi-plug adapters is opening you up for a liability. Never use black electrical tape as a repair method for cords. Make the proper connection repairs, and use a water tight seal, such as a heat shrink tube, to adequately protect it.
OSHA Standard 1910.334 outlines the regulations for tool cords and extension cord use. Refer to this standard as you evaluate your cord utilization in your plant and your office. Some companies miss unsafe conditions that exist in their office space and focus only on the manufacturing or production environment.
Next month I will tackle issues companies have with service panels, electrical motors, switch panels and more.
Editor’s Note: Jary Winstead is a safety consultant, author and trainer who serves a variety of industries including the forest products sector. He owns Work Safety Services LLC and can be reached at SAFEJARY@aol.com.
Extension Cord Safety Tips
Whenever using an extension cord you should always:
• Inspect it for physical damage before use.
• Check the wattage rating on the appliance or tool that the extension cord will be used with; do not use an extension cord that has a lower rating.
• Inspect to make sure all equipment and extension cords bear the mark of an independent testing laboratory such as UL (Underwriter’s Laboratories).
• Check to make sure the plug on an extension cord is fully inserted in the outlet.
• Check and have an outlet replaced if a plug is too loose in the outlet.
• Always match up the plug and extension cord on a polarized cord (one hole on the plug is larger than the other).
• Always use grounded extension cords that have three prongs.
• Make sure to keep extension cords away from water.
• Always use GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) protection when using extension cords in wet or damp environments.
• Always make sure to keep extension cords away from children and animals.
• Always pull on the plug, not the cord when removing an extension cord from the outlet.
• Always store extension cords indoors.
• Always unplug extension cords when not in use.When using extension cords you should never:
• Use an extension cord marked for indoor use outdoors.
• Plug one extension cord into another.
• Overload cords with more than the proper electrical load.
• Run extension cords through doorways, holes in ceilings, walls, or floors.
• Move, bend, or modify any of the metal parts of the extension cord plug.
• Plug a three-prong into a two-hole extension cord.
• Force a plug into an outlet.
• Use an extension cord when it is wet.
• Overheat an extension cord.
• Cover an extension cord with anything.
• Drive over an extension cord.
• Drag an extension cord.
• Daisy chain power strips
• Attach extension cords to the wall with nails or staples.
• Run extension cords under rugs or carpets or in high traffic areas.
• Repair cords with vinyl electrical tape.