Most office environments are considered low-risk in terms of electrical hazards. But that doesn’t mean you should take safety for granted. Just because you’re not working on a factory floor with high-voltage equipment or are operating large machinery outdoors near power lines, don’t assume electrical hazards can’t be present.
“Just as at home, you need to keep your nose in the wind and eyes open,” said John Gasstrom, CEO of Indiana Electric Cooperatives. “A business setting should be up to code. But we all know mistakes happen, or shortcuts, unfortunately, get taken. No matter where you work, take account of your surroundings. Report things that make you go ‘hmmmm.’ Don’t assume maintenance or management must already know about an issue you see and that everything must be OK.”
Hazards and peculiar things office workers should keep watch for include:
- Electrical cables that are frayed, loose or have exposed wires.
- Outlets that are worn and won’t hold plugs snugly.
- Electrical equipment that gives off a strange odor.
- Overheating equipment (those not heated by normal operation). Beware of discolored plastic casings on the equipment or discolored outlet covers.
- Overloaded outlets or extension cords.
- Equipment that is not working properly.
Any faulty equipment, wiring, plugs, etc., should be removed from use immediately and reported to your supervisor or whomever is in charge. Outlets should not be overloaded, so either plug equipment elsewhere or tell your supervisor, who should minimize the need for overloading them.
The office may need to have a licensed electrician install additional outlets and circuits to reduce overloading or the need to rely heavily on extension cords.
To minimize hazards:
- Switch off and unplug appliances when they are not in use and before cleaning.
- Turn off all appliances at the end of the day.
- Do not force a plug into an outlet if it does not fit.
- Do not run electrical cords through high-traffic areas, under carpets or across doorways.
- Make sure the electrical load is not too much for any circuit, even when using a surge protector.
Making a safe escape from downed power lines
Overloaded electrical circuits pose both an electrocution and fire hazard. While the number of outlets in offices often is a factor out of employers’ – and employees’ – control, the Electrical Safety Foundation International recommends these steps to stay safe from electrical hazards:
- If you must use a power strip, use a name-brand product from a reputable retailer. Low-quality or counterfeit power strips may contain wiring that isn’t adequate to carry the load.
- Place power strips where there is plenty of air circulation to disperse heat.
- Do not use adapters that let plug-grounded cords (three-prong) be used in ungrounded (two-slot) outlets.
- Do not bind, kink or knot electrical cords.
- Never run power cords under rugs or where chairs can roll over them.
- Keep cords close to a wall to avoid trip hazards.
- Keep all non-critical electrical items unplugged until you need to use them.
- Consider charging battery-operated devices in another area.
- If your computer screen flickers or fades, or you detect a burning smell, power down and immediately contact the building engineer.
- If your office needs more or upgraded outlets, contact the building engineer to schedule a visit from a licensed electrician.
- If you work from home, have a licensed electrician conduct an electrical inspection of the electrical needs created by your home office equipment.
Most all workplaces face electrical hazards
According to an Electrical Safety Foundation International analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 160 fatal work-related electrical injuries occurred in 2018 – almost an 18% jump from 2017. And although nonfatal work-related electrical injuries fell some 29% over the same period, the industries with the leading number of these injury cases – construction, manufacturing, leisure and hospitality, and education and health services – involved occupations that don’t traditionally receive extensive electrical training.
This data is prompting a renewed call to action among employers to enhance electrical awareness and training. Key to raising awareness is understanding that although not all electrical hazards are created equal, all employees need to understand electrical hazards in their particular workplace.