Avoid nasty shocks this New Year with electrical safety in the office
Extension cords strung across walkways. Overloaded power strips. Office personal heaters all running concurrently. All are a recipe for electrical shocks and fires. Fortunately, there are many simple ways to protect electrical safety in the office and keep tribal employees warm – and safe.
The properties of generated electricity are often analogous to the ways in which water behaves, in that the energy flows along a circuit (path) in the form of a current. Like water, electricity is drawn to the earth, and always follows the path of least resistance. Voltage refers to the “pressure” that moves electricity along a circuit and is often compared to water pressure in pipes.
Also like water, electricity has the power to be a deadly force. Circuit breakers and fuses are designed to break a circuit that exceeds safe capacities. Electrical systems are grounded to provide excess electricity a path to the earth, so that the current will not energize an appliance…or a person.
For all the similarities between water and electricity, the two should never mix. GFCI (Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter) outlets can shut off power to an appliance if they sense an imbalance in the current flow. These are often installed in kitchens or bathrooms, where water also appears. Local building codes may have requirements regarding these outlets, so check with an electrician to make sure yours are in compliance.
Hazards to electrical safety in the office
The following hazards can occur in any electrical device, regardless of the voltage. It is crucial to make sure that electrical equipment is always in good working condition and only used in the manner in which it was intended.
Electrical Shock. Everyone has experienced the effect of a mild static shock, but shocks from live electrical currents can cause life-threatening injuries. Shock occurs when the body comes into contact with a circuit, becoming part of the energy path. Possible causes can include contact with both wires of an electrical circuit simultaneously; one wire of an energized circuit and the ground; or a piece of metal that has been energized by contact with an electrical conductor. The intensity of the shock depends on the path the electricity takes, the strength of the charge, the length of exposure and whether moisture is present.
The human body can perceive a shock without pain at only 1 milliampere of exposure, but as few as 50 milliamperes can cause respiratory arrest. Considering that most outlets can provide up to 20,000 milliamperes puts the potential danger of an ordinary outlet into startling perspective.
Fire. When electrical equipment fails, it can put out large quantities of heat, smoke or sparks. Once a fire has begun, it only compromises electrical equipment further, exacerbating the effects and increasing the danger.
Arc Flash. This occurs when electricity jumps from its intended circuit and arcs through the air, creating an explosion comprised of intense light, pressure waves and gases. This explosion can melt metal, inflict intense burns and permanently damage eyesight and hearing.
Tips for electrical safety in the office
Most office incidents involving electricity result from faulty equipment, incorrect installation or the misuse of extension cords, power strips and surge protectors, says Safety + Health magazine. Please consider the following carefully for electrical safety in the office, helping your tribal workplace avoid these hazards. For additional tips, review this article from the State Office of Risk Management for Texas.
- Never attempt electrical work or repair yourself – ALWAYS contract out to a certified electrician.
- Follow all manufacturer instructions for all appliances and electrical equipment.
- Only use lightbulbs that match the fixture’s recommended wattage.
- Have additional outlets installed as power demand increases.
- Only use or purchase electrical equipment that has been certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
- Do not attempt to plug three-prong (grounded) cords into two-prong (ungrounded) outlets by removing the third prong from a grounded plug.
- Only use 33+ rated electrical tape to repair minor cord or wire damage. Never use it on cracks or frays that expose bare electrical wire. If the cord has cracked or nicked outer sheath, but the inner insulation is still intact, then electrical tape can be used as a safe repair option.
- Consider implementing a quarterly inspection schedule for outlets, cords, power strips, surge protectors and switches.
- Discontinue using if plugs are loose in an outlet – this can lead to arcing.
- Discoloration of the wall around and above an outlet can be indicative of a malfunction.
- Do not overload outlets – plug only one high-wattage appliance into an outlet at a time.
- Outlets or switches should not be warm or hot to the touch.
- Utilize plastic safety covers anywhere outlets are near children.
- Do not coil power cords while in use.
- Never nail or staple power cords in place.
- Appliances should be turned off before being plugged in or maintained.
- Appliances should be unplugged when not in use to reduce power consumption and fire risk.
- Repair or replace all loose or fraying cords immediately.
Many electrical fires are caused by improperly used extension cords.
- Extension cords are designed to be temporary power solutions, not long-term wiring, and improper use can lead to rapid deterioration and failure
- Only use extension cords that are properly rated for their intended use – indoor, outdoor, power capacity, etc.
- Do not run extension cords through doorways, under carpets, or other high traffic areas
Power strips do not generate more power for a wall outlet, they simply provide additional access to the same circuit capacity the wall outlet utilizes.
- Power strips should have access to plenty of air circulation to distribute heat.
- Do not overload power strips – know the power capacity of all your appliances and power conduits before use.
- Check capabilities before purchase – some power strips may not have any surge protection capacity or only protect against certain surge events.
- A surge protector may be able to handle multiple small surges but will likely have to be replaced after a large surge, such as from a lightning strike.
- A more comprehensive way to protect your equipment from outside surges is to have surge protection devices (SPDs) or transient voltage surge suppressors (TVSSs) installed throughout your facility, rather than relying on the surge suppressors in power strips. Talk to an electrician to learn more.
Make it a common practice to note the wattage consumption of each electrical device upon purchase. You can find this rating either printed on the appliance or in the manual. Ratings may be listed in either amps (amperes) or watts, so double-check that you have the right unit of measure before proceeding.
Your power requirements should not exceed 80% of the rated capacity of the power strip or extension cord. Check out these articles from Rack Solutions Blog and SORM for basics on how to determine power usage capabilities.
Don’t let electrical equipment breakdown come as a nasty shock – review your electrical safety in the office policies and procedures today! For more information, please consult a certified electrician, the sources for this article (listed below), or your Arrowhead Tribal risk manager, Mark Sherwood, at firstname.lastname@example.org.