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New Standard Gives Electrical Safety a Boost

30-Sep-10

By Richard Cairney

A new workplace electrical safety standard from the Canadian Standards Association is bringing electrical safety to a new level. It will help protect electrical workers by raising awareness of hazards, detailing measures to be taken in particular situations and providing guidelines for personal protection.

Based in part on the safety principles first established in CSA’s Z460 Standard on Control of Hazardous Energy— Lockout and Other Methods, the new CSA standard is a home-grown version of the standard used in the United States. In 1979, the U.S. National Fire Protection Association created a Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace that was eventually adopted across the continent. But in 2005 the CSA suggested that Canada develop its own equivalent standard in collaboration with the NFPA.

“The U.S. standard did not fit well with the Canadian Electrical Code and other Canadian safety standards,” says Dave Shanahan, OHS Standards project manager, CSA Standards. Shanahan calls the new standard, CSA-Z462, a “Canadianized” version of the old U.S. standard.

Among other things, the new standard

  • recognizes the need for electrical work to be performed by “qualified electrical workers”
  • calls for the training of machinery operators and non-electrical maintenance personnel in hazard awareness and safety practices around electrical equipment
  • sets out safety procedures for instances where energized work is necessary (e.g., troubleshooting)
  • guides workers in the selection of appropriate personal protective equipment

Better protection for workers
Pierre McDonald, Alberta’s chief inspector, Electrical Codes and Standards, says the new national standard is a valuable tool in protecting workers. For example, it raises awareness of the hazards posed by electrical arc flash events. Although rare, these events can be deadly, according to McDonald.

“I am not aware of any arc flash fatalities in Alberta, but they are life-threatening,” says McDonald. “With these arc flashes, if they’re severe you get metal ‘busbars’ vaporizing in an instant. Most people don’t survive them.” Busbars are thick strips of copper or aluminium that conduct large electrical currents within a switchboard, distribution board or other electrical apparatus.

“Recognition of arc flash hazards has become widespread in many industries,” says Shanahan, “and Canadian employers are gradually accepting the need for electrical work to be performed exclusively by ‘qualified electrical workers.’ ”

Working with live equipment
McDonald says the Canadian Electrical Code states broadly that the safest condition is to disconnect electrical equipment before working on it. But he says under some circumstances work needs to be done on “live” equipment. CSA-Z462 provides electrical workers with important information about how to protect themselves when they are working on live electrical equipment.

“This provides guidelines for owners of electrical switch gear to determine what kinds of hazards are associated with working on that switch gear [when it is] live, and the hazards based on energy that would be present should a fault occur,” he says. Switch gear, in its most basic form, includes the electrical panel in your house, where electrical power is knocked down to useable levels and distributed.

Under the new standard, labels on switch gear will show the calculated energy of a potential arc flash and advise workers on what level of precautions to take.

“It tells you basically what personal protective gear you need to use based on calculated energy, which could be anything from just fire resistant coveralls to full-on protective suits,” says McDonald.

More companies adopting code
While the standard hasn’t been written into provincial or federal legislation—the Canadian Electrical Code is the standard that electrical installations must meet—McDonald is confident that Alberta employers will adopt it.

“I think that what is happening is that corporations are voluntarily adopting it,” he says.

And that is a good thing, according to Shilo Neveu, a lawyer with the law firm McLennan Ross LLP. Neveu, whose primary practice is occupational health and safety law, is an instructor for the Occupational Health and Safety Certificate Program at the University of Alberta Faculty of Extension. He teaches the courses "Managing Contractor Safety Performance” and “Health and Safety Legislation and Policy.”

Neveu predicts that because industry is voluntarily adopting the new standard, and because it is a national standard, there is a good chance it will be adopted the next time Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Code is updated.

“Right now the CSA standard isn’t recognized in most Canadian provinces, including Alberta. As such, it isn’t a legally binding authority. This means, if you are not following it, you won’t be charged,” says Neveu. “But I don’t recommend employers ignore it. I would advise them to look at it and recognize that this is the direction we are going in and get ahead of that curve.”

Simple language
Neveu says one of the strengths of the new standard is that it is written in language anyone can fathom.


“It breaks down step-by-step basic safety knowledge—anyone can pick it up and become very educated on how to deal with this hazard. It is written quite well and pretty much any lay person can pick it up and know what is going on and what they should be doing.”

This means, for example, that the Alberta Government’s Occupational Health and Safety officers can be more effective, he says.

“Most OH&S officers aren’t from the electrical trade to begin with, and with this document they can pick it up and start asking very specific questions about what a worker is doing and how they are doing it.”

Shanahan says a concerted effort to raise awareness of the new standard is already making a difference in workplaces across Canada. “Many thousands of copies of Z462 have been distributed across Canada, regulatory authorities have begun to recognize the standard in most jurisdictions, and training programs based on Z462 have been delivered by CSA and various electrical safety groups in all provinces,” he says.

“Better, well-informed choices are being made.”

Richard Cairney is a communications officer for the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta.
     

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