Avoiding the Shock: Electrical Safety for Electricians

As one of the world’s first electricians, Benjamin Franklin discovered two very important things.

  1. Electricity can give you a shocking experience.
  2. Don’t fly a kite in an electrical storm.

In the 200+ years that have followed Franklin’s kite-flying experiment, we’ve learned a great deal about how to use electricity and, importantly, how to handle it safely.

As a professional electrician, you face many dangers working with electricity. You have to be prepared and know how to handle each situation in order to avoid getting injured or killed, and in order to avoid having others being harmed as well.

Electrical hazards are part of your day-to-day activities; but special circumstances arise when a storm is brewing, when a storm is raging and even after the storm has passed by. Here are some electrical safety tips to help you prepare for the common dangers you face as an electrician before, during and after storms; or in the rainy season more generally.

Before the Storm

Benjamin Franklin might not have known that an electrical storm was brewing until it was upon him. Today, we have no excuse to be surprised by the weather. Weather reports are available around the clock. Doppler radar systems can give good estimates of the possibility of heavy rain and the convective activity associated with thunderstorms and tornados.

As a professional electrician, you have the responsibility to know the conditions you are working in. Just like a pilot who has to plan a flight and wants to avoid thunderstorms, you need to plan and avoid them too, or do the best you can.

With a proper alertness to weather conditions, you can prepare to ensure the least chance for an electrical or other hazard once a storm hits.

One of the easiest things you can do, particularly if you are working presently in an area and a storm is coming, is to unplug everything and then wait it out. Prepare all your materials so that after the storm passes you will have easy access to your dry equipment and not need to wonder about whether or not some electrical equipment got wet in the storm.

You can also let your co-workers or employers know of the storm risk and encourage them to take appropriate safety measures as well. Remind them of some of the important points that follow here regarding what not to do during a storm.

During the Storm: Outside

If you have to work outside during a storm, you need to pay particular attention to several potential hazards. Your primary focus should be on understanding if the storm has the potential to produce lightning.

Big, puffy clouds demonstrate the highly convective activity in the air that’s needed for electrical storms. When clouds form into a characteristic anvil shape, that’s prime time for thunderstorms. If you see hail or freezing rain associated with these storms, your awareness needs to go up even faster. If you see lightning, then the answer to the question of whether or not the storm can produce lightning is staring you in the face.

You can use the rule of thumb of counting the number of seconds after a lightning flash to the time that you hear thunder to determine approximately how far away the lightning was. The rule is one mile for every five seconds.
That’s because sound travels much slower than light. The light from the lightning reaches your eye almost instantaneously, with light traveling at 186,000 miles per second. The sound produced by the lightning travels at about 700 miles per hour, or about 1,000 feet per second. So in five seconds, the sound covers about one mile (5280 feet). The atmospheric conditions for the speed of sound vary, but this is a useful approximation.

Here’s the really important point to keep in mind: If you don’t see lighting but hear thunder, then of course you know the storm is producing lightning. What’s more, if you hear thunder, then you are close enough to be struck by lightning. It may not even be raining where you’re located; thunderstorms can produce lighting at a distance of 10 to 15 miles away from where precipitation is falling.

As an electrician, you already know several things about lightning strikes; but let’s have a brief reminder.

  1. Lightning can and does strike in the same place multiple times.
  2. Wearing rubber shoes or being in a car with rubber tires does not prevent you being struck by lightning. However, if you are in a car, the metal cage of the car actually will protect you as it will discharge the electricity around you, as long as you aren’t touching any part of the metal.
  3. Lightning is most likely to travel the path of least resistance. From cloud to ground, that means the tallest object is the most likely strike point.

With an eye toward that last point, if you are working in an electrical storm and have any option to stop, you must opt for safety first. If you are working to fix something that is a hazard to yourself or others and you absolutely must continue, you have to consider ways to make yourself the least likely target for a lightning strike. Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Don’t stand up in an open field or on top of a hill. Don’t expose yourself to the storm while on a boat at sea. Be as low as you can relative to the landscape.
  2. Stay away from other objects that might be a good spot for lightning to take the path of least resistance. For example, if you can, work away from a large tree, telephone pole or street light. Just being in the vicinity of a lightning strike can be very dangerous.
  3. Don’t touch metal objects, like chain link fences, with your hands or directly with any part of your body. Think about all the metal things you are working with as a professional electrician. You might have tools and keys on you. To minimize your risk, you should not be holding these metal items.

Dan Robinson, a storm chaser, reports that it’s a myth that carrying metal will actually increase your chances of being struck by lightning. However, you still don’t want to be holding anything that would serve as an electrical conductor. If a lightning strike has been set in motion and is going to strike near you, that’s a bad outcome. A worse outcome is to provide a channel of less resistance for the lightning to come right to you.

If you feel your hair start to stand on end, you are in imminent danger. You should crouch down immediately, with the goal of being as low as possible and having as little contact with the ground as you can.

Even if you aren’t directly in the area of the storm, think about what conduct electricity could do to you. For example, in 2013, two Canadian Pacific railroad workers were electrocuted because the train tracks they were working on were struck by lightning. In a case like that, you don’t have to be in the direct vicinity of an electrical storm to be at risk.

During the Storm: Inside

If a storm is raging away outside and you’re at work inside, you are still at risk of an electrical shock. That’s because a lightning strike on the structure that surrounds you will proceed to the ground via all available paths. Those paths include all the electrical circuitry in the home or building. They also include all the metal plumbing, cables, wires – everything that can serve as an electrical conductor.

The practical safety procedures for being inside during a storm include not touching any of these conductors. Furthermore, you shouldn’t be working on any device that’s wired into the structure of the building. For example, you shouldn’t be working on a landline telephone during an electrical storm – or using it to call someone. Working on a wireless phone or router is fine, as long as it’s not plugged into an electrical socket.

You also want to avoid standing in water, which can act as electrical conductors to the ground. If a room is flooded during a storm, that’s not the time to be doing electrical work.

After the Storm

One of the primary electrical hazards after a storm is a downed power line. It’s a common myth that power lines are insulated: 90 percent of outside power lines aren’t. That means you need to be on guard and treat every power line as if it’s live. You may also need to warn or admonish others not to touch power lines.

Some of the general public may have the mistaken view that power lines automatically shut off somehow if they hit the ground. Of course, as a pro, you know that’s not true.

You may have to act a bit like a policeman and help people stay safe by keeping them away from a power line until the power company determines it’s not live. Until a power line is confirmed as being safe, the general rule is to ensure everyone stays at least 10 feet away from it and also from anything that’s touching it.

You may find someone in contact with a downed power line. If they appear in distress or unconscious, that’s telltale evidence that the line is live. Your instinct may be to remove them from the power line, but keep in mind that they are electrically live just like the power line is.

If you do not have the proper equipment with you to safely separate the person from the live power line, call 911. Also, you have to ensure that no one else attempts to grab the person to separate him or her from the line.

You or someone else may seek out a stick or other generally poor conductive device to separate the person from the line. Just remember that if it’s after a storm, that stick may be wet or water may have soaked into the wood. From the perspective of electricity, that makes the stick look more like a metal pipe. Wet wood is a good electrical conductor.

You know not to drive over downed power lines. A live power line could come in contact with your car, potentially electrifying you. In addition, you could drag the power line and create a new hazard.

The main problem is that after a storm there may be flooded areas, and standing muddy water can hide downed power lines very easily. So you have to pay particular attention to flooded areas. That’s true not only outdoors but indoors, too.

If you’re inside a home and there’s a flooded basement, that water may be concealing a live electrical socket. Even if the socket is a modern socket with safety shutoff capabilities, the water may be hiding other electrical hazards akin to a downed power line. Particularly in the case where the water in the area is brackish – a mixture of seawater and fresh water – the risk of electrocution is higher.

After a storm, home electrical appliances may have gotten wet. If they were plugged in, then they may have shorted out. If they were unplugged, they may short out when turned back on. Either way, you have a risk for electrical hazards, fire hazards and smoke. Be careful when evaluating electrical appliance for safety after a storm.

The same cautions go for circuit breakers, fuses, socket outlet plugs and switches that may have gotten wet in a storm. Your best option is to replace them and not assume that they are still functional.

After a storm you may find some people working with portable electrical generators. There are at least two main risks associated with these generations. First is the primary risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you come across anyone using a generator inside the confines of their home, shut it off and move it to an outdoor area at least 15 feet away.

The second risk is that an improperly installed generator can actually send current back into the grid, along power lines, and this could electrocute crews who are working to get power back on in a given area. For this reason, it’s very important that portable electric generators be installed by professional electricians. You may have to be the one to fix a bad installation.

Also after a storm, when working inside a home, always keep your nose on alert for the smell of natural gas from broken gas lines. If you sense the characteristic rotten egg smell of natural gas, leave the area – and get everyone else clear as well – and call 911.

Learn More With StateCE

If you want to learn more about electrical safety training for professional electrician, StateCE is the place to go. We offer nationwide services and electrical safety education programs for various job classifications, including journeyman sign electrician, master sign electrician, journeyman electrician and master electrician.

Many states require you to demonstrate proficiency in the National Electrical Code. StateCE can help you stay up to date on the changes to this industry standard as part of your license renewal process. No one offers better customer service in CE industry than we do, and we offer a price match on continuing education courses, so you always know you are getting the best price.

With more than 50 years of experience and more than 100,000 customers across the USA, StateCE is your source for meeting the CE requirements of your trade. You can browse our state course catalogs online here. Contact us today at 877-603-4073, or get started right now by registering for a new account with us.