Question: Northern Territory WorkSafe (NTWorkSafe) in Australia recently issued a warning about electric shock hazards associated with heavy sweating while workers are using electrically powered tools, especially in hot and humid conditions. The safety alert mentioned power drills, grinders, welders and screw guns as being the most common power tools to cause electric shocks and noted that sweat dripping from workers runs over the power tool being used, often entering the trigger and air vents. Australians use 240-volt power, whereas we use 110-120 volts. Is this issue a significant safety concern in North America and if so, what advice would you have for supervisors to minimize the risks for electrical shocks to their workers?
Answer: The use of electric power tools in the workplace has dramatically increased productivity. Electrical power tools have evolved to now include once unimaginable features such as higher torque, faster speeds, lighter weight, reduced vibration and other ergonomic capabilities. While all these features make power tools an attractive commodity in the workplace, there are some inherent hazards that workers should be mindful of—specifically involving their power source, electricity.
When electrical power tools are used under hot atmospheric conditions, risk to the end user can greatly increase. For example, mixing electricity and workers who experience profuse sweating can create a recipe for fatal consequences.
Fortunately, following just a few simple precautions when working under hot environmental conditions can lead to safe and productive working environments.
Ensure that electric power tools are used for their intended uses and environmental conditions.
Make sure that electrical tool cords have ground pins or that the tools are double insulated.
Verify that the tool carries the label of an independent testing laboratory such as UL (Underwriters Laboratories) or Canadian Standards Association (CSA).
A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) should be used when the tool is connected to temporary power, and permanent power sources should be grounded.
All electrical power tools should be kept dry.
If a worker experiences a shock while using a power tool, the tool must be taken out of service and examined by a competent person.
Environmental conditions can greatly increase the likelihood of electrical accidents. When working under hot environmental conditions a different set of safety precautions should be additionally observed.
Ensure employees are properly hydrated by providing plenty of cool water and encouraging them to drink it regularly.
Institute rest cycles for employees working in hot environments.
Rotate workers between work activities and rest cycles to prevent heat-related illnesses.
Provide shaded rest areas where needed.
Ensure employees dress appropriately for hot environments.
Provide mechanical means of cooling such as fans or air conditioning units.
Electrical power tools have revolutionized productivity in the workplace but safety should never be sacrificed. Being mindful of the safety tips above can help ensure a safe and healthful working environment.