Coalition moves to power down risky ‘live work’

A day on the job for electricians can be risky business, but the risk is even higher if they’re performing live work on energized electrical equipment. That’s why the Electrical Safety Coalition of Ontario has launched its Just Don’t Ask campaign with the goal of stopping the demand for live work, in order to prevent serious injury or death.

This is “a real problem in the industry” because of both the employer requesting electricians and electrical workers to work live and because within the electrical workers’ culture, many have “grown up working live,” says Scott McKay, manager of strategic alliances for the Industrial Accident Prevention Association, a coalition partner.

Bob O’Donnell, executive vice-president of the Greater Toronto Electrical Contractors Association, says he has learned from workers about situations where clients expect them to do live work when it’s not necessary, just because it’s more convenient and less costly than shutting the power off.

“It might be inconvenient for some to turn the power off, but the inconvenience of having a shutdown for three or four days if something went wrong is significantly greater.”

As well, if something goes wrong while working live, contractors are responsible and this could put them out of business, he says.

The campaign’s purpose is to “change the expectations that contractors will work live,” he says.

According to statistics provided by the coalition, 80 per cent of electrical workers have worked live on sites that they identified as being a high or above average risk. Seventy-six per cent identified that the circuits they were working on were not disconnected, and yet, 44 per cent of these workers felt they could do this work without injury or serious harm.

Between 1998 and 2007, there were 70 occupational-related electrical deaths in Ontario.
The campaign’s launch took place June 12 at the Centre for Health & Safety Innovation in Mississauga where speakers from the five coalition partners emphasized the importance of “de-energizing and trying to create a whole new culture where we don’t ask workers to work live and if workers are asked to work live, they don’t accept that,” McKay says.

The Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario, Electrical Safety Authority, Electrical & Utilities Safety Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Council of Ontario are also part of the coalition.
The campaign includes a series of posters and an authorization form, which lists precautions employers must take if they are asking electricians to work live.

There are “some exceptional circumstances” in which it’s necessary to do this, but it can be done safely, McKay says. People who work on high voltage power and utility lines have to work live, states the campaign’s media release.

The authorization form’s list includes a reference to Z462, a new Canadian standard, which gives “very strict requirements” about how to work live and what protective equipment must be worn, McKay explains.

The posters and form are available to download from the coalition’s website and the form will also be available through the partner organizations.

While each organization will be promoting the campaign, “what we hope would last is this authorization form,” which is a standard one that can replace homemade forms that are out there, O’Donnell says.

It will enable everyone involved to be properly prepared and might even make the client think twice about requesting live work and instead find another way, he explains.

However, the campaign won’t be without challenges.

McKay acknowledges that it’s “very difficult to change behaviours” on both the side of employers and on the side of electrical workers, but this is a starting point and the “ultimate goal is certainly zero – that no one gets killed or injured.”

Formed in 2007, O’Donnell says the coalition was created after hearing about workers’ experiences, the near misses, situations where no injuries occurred, but where there was a loss of production, and because of the statistics showing the number of work-related electrical fatalities and accidents.