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16.1.1 Common Electrical Hazards and Preventative Steps

Many common electrical hazards can be easily identified before a serious problem exists.

  • Read and follow all equipment operating instructions for proper use. Ask yourself, "Do I have the skills, knowledge, tools, and experience to do this work safely?" 
  • Do not attempt electrical repairs unless you are a qualified electrical technician assigned to perform electrical work by your supervisor. Qualified individuals must receive training in safety related work practices and procedures, be able to recognize specific hazards associated with electrical energy, and be trained to understand the relationship between electrical hazards and possible injury. Fixed wiring may only be repaired or modified by Facilities Services. 
  • All electrical devices fabricated for experimental purposes must meet state and University construction and grounding requirements. Extension cords, power strips, and other purchased electrical equipment must be Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listed. 
  • Remove all jewelry before working with electricity. This includes rings, watches, bracelets, and necklaces. 
  • Determine appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) based on potential hazards present. Before use, inspect safety glasses and gloves for signs of wear and tear, and other damage. 
  • Use insulated tools and testing equipment to work on electrical equipment. Use power tools that are double-insulated or that have Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters protecting the circuit. Do not use aluminum ladders while working with electricity; choose either wood or fiberglass. 
  • Do not work on energized circuits. The accidental or unexpected starting of electrical equipment can cause severe injury or death. Before any inspections or repairs are made, the current must be turned off at the switch box and the switch padlocked or tagged out in the off position. At the same time, the switch or controls of the machine or the other equipment being locked out of service should be securely tagged to show which equipment or circuits are being worked on. Test the equipment to make sure there is no residual energy before attempting to work on the circuit. Employees must follow the Cornell University lock-out/tag-out procedures. 
  • If you need additional power supply, the best solution is to have additional outlets installed by Facilities Services. Do not use extension cords or power strips ("power taps") as a substitute for permanent wiring. 
  • Extension cords and power strips may be used for experimental or developmental purposes on a temporary basis only. Extension cords can only be used for portable tools or equipment and must be unplugged after use. Do not use extension cords for fixed equipment such as computers, refrigerators/freezers, etc.; use a power strip in these cases. In general, the use of power strips is preferred over use of extension cords. 
  • Power strips must have a built-in overload protection (circuit breaker) and must not be connected to another power strip or extension cord (commonly referred to as daisy chained or piggy-backed). As mentioned above though, extension cords and power strips are not a substitute for permanent wiring. 
  • Ensure any power strips or extension cords are listed by a third-party testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Make sure the extension cord thickness is at least as big as the electrical cord for the tool. For more information on extension cords, see the Consumer Product Safety Commission - Extension Cords Fact Sheet (CPSC Document #16). 
  • Inspect all electrical and extension cords for wear and tear. Pay particular attention near the plug and where the cord connects to the piece of equipment. If you discover a frayed electrical cord, contact your Building Coordinator for assistance. Do not use equipment having worn or damaged power cords, plugs, switches, receptacles, or cracked casings. Running electrical cords under doors or rugs, through windows, or through holes in walls is a common cause of frayed or damaged cords and plugs. 
  • Do not use 2-prong ungrounded electrical devices. All department-purchased electrical equipment must be 3-prong grounded with very limited exceptions.
  • Never store flammable liquids near electrical equipment, even temporarily. 
  • Keep work areas clean and dry. Cluttered work areas and benches invite accidents and injuries. Good housekeeping and a well-planned layout of temporary wiring will reduce the dangers of fire, shock, and tripping hazards. 
  • Common scenarios that may indicate an electrical problem include: flickering lights, warm switches or receptacles, burning odors, sparking sounds when cords are moved, loose connections, frayed, cracked, or broken wires. If you notice any of these problems, have a qualified electrician address the issue immediately. 
  • To protect against electrical hazards and to respond to electrical emergencies it is important to identify the electrical panels that serve each room. Access to these panels must be unobstructed; a minimum of 3’ of clearance is required in front of every electrical panel. Each panel must have all the circuit breakers labeled as to what they control. Contact your Building Coordinator for assistance. 
  • When performing laboratory inspections, it is a good idea to verify the location of the power panel and to open the door to ensure any breakers that are missing have breaker caps in its place. If no breaker is present and no breaker cap is covering the hole, contact your Building Coordinator for assistance. 
  • Avoid operating or working with electrical equipment in a wet or damp environment. If you must work in a wet or damp environment, be sure your outlets or circuit breakers are Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) protected. Temporary GFCI plug adapters can also be used, but are not a substitute for GFCI outlets or circuit breakers. 

Fuses, circuit breakers, and Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters are three well-known examples of circuit protection devices.

  • Fuses and circuit breakers are over-current devices that are placed in circuits to monitor the amount of current that the circuit will carry. They automatically open or break the circuit when the amount of the current flow becomes excessive and therefore unsafe. Fuses are designed to melt when too much current flows through them. Circuit breakers, on the other hand, are designed to trip open the circuit by electro-mechanical means. 
  • Fuses and circuit breakers are intended primarily for the protection of conductors and equipment. They prevent overheating of wires and components that might otherwise create hazards for operators. 
  • The Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) is designed to shut off electric power within as little as 1/40 of a second, thereby protecting the person, not just the equipment. It works by comparing the amount of current going to an electric device against the amount of current returning from the device along the circuit conductors. A fixed or portable GFCI should be used in high-risk areas such as wet locations and construction sites.

Entrances to rooms and other guarded locations containing exposed live parts must be marked with conspicuous warning signs forbidding unqualified persons to enter. Live parts of electric equipment operating at 50 volts or more must be guarded against accidental contact. Guarding of live parts may be accomplished by:

  • Location in a room, vault, or similar enclosure accessible only to qualified persons.
  • Use of permanent, substantial partitions or screens to exclude unqualified persons. 
  • Location on a suitable balcony, gallery, or platform elevated and arranged to exclude unqualified persons, or 
  • Elevation of 8 feet or more above the floor.

For additional information, see the following resources: