Insulated tools: Protection from injury, death, and liability

July 1, 1999
The screwdriver slipped from Jamal Abdeen`s hands and landed below him on two 220-volt lines, sparking an explosion that left the 44-year-old electrician severely burned, igniting a four-alarm fire that destroyed downtown business landmarks in downtown Norfolk, VA, and leaving 13 people jobless.

Using insulated tools is not only a matter of common sense, it`s the law.

Mark A. DeSorbo

The screwdriver slipped from Jamal Abdeen`s hands and landed below him on two 220-volt lines, sparking an explosion that left the 44-year-old electrician severely burned, igniting a four-alarm fire that destroyed downtown business landmarks in downtown Norfolk, VA, and leaving 13 people jobless.

At the Energy Center (Lawrence, KS), three employees were caught in a 26-foot fireball emitted by an electrical explosion as they worked on a high-voltage circuit breaker. One of the men was killed instantly, while the other two died several days later from their injuries. The primary cause of the triple tragedy points to the lack of taking safety precautions, like using protective equipment and insulated hand tools.

Sure. These disasters that emblazoned the pages of The Virginia Pilot and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration`s World Wide Web site (osha--Washington, DC) involve electricians, often thought to be more at risk of electrocution than a low-voltage contractor. But that screwdriver could have slipped from the hands of an installer of voice and data cabling, and the same installer could have overlooked safety precautions. Moreover, the incidents may never have happened if the victims were using insulated tools.

Jim McCloskey, outside director for Burlington, NJ-based Cementex, a maker of insulated tools, says no matter what the voltage, insulated tools should always be used on the job site. In fact, osha mandates that insulated tools be used when working with electricity greater than 50V.

OSHA Standards

There are two osha standards--1910.269 and 1926--that recommend the use of personal-protective equipment, which includes insulated tools. The standards mandate that safety- related work practices be employed to prevent electric shock or other injuries that may result from direct or indirect contact with energized electrical conductors. They also stipulate that when working near exposed energized conductors or circuit parts, workers shall use insulated tools or handling equipment if (the tools) might make contact with such conductors or parts.

"Even though that hazard of getting electrocuted is less with low-voltage installers, it is good practice to take the precaution," says Virgle Howell, an osha compliance officer based in Boise, ID. "Inside a building, the low-voltage cabling may be in an area where there is higher voltage. Even below 50V, if you were in a wet location, it could be particularly hazardous to you. Things can happen."

According to findings outlined in the osha standards, deaths from electrical shock are the fourth leading cause of death at a construction site. Contact with a mere 1 to 3 milliamperes is enough to affect a worker`s perception and cause a painful shock. In fact, 9 to 35 mA can cause great muscular contractions, the inability to let go, and respiratory paralysis. Between 50 and 250 mA, the effects are usually fatal heart failure and tissue burning.

"Too many people still think, `It won`t happen to me,` " McCloskey says. "It`s an osha mandate and a common-sense issue. Some contractors are a little slow in addressing this, and it`s usually when one of their employees gets electrocuted that they do. You don`t necessarily know where certain wires go or are coming from, so you could get shocked, and if one drops from your belt, it could short the entire system."

Making his case without naming names, he says a telecommunications installer dropped a noninsulated tool, which fell across some live lines. "It shut down the town`s 911 line for six hours. Fixing the problem cost well into six figures, not to mention the human toll if you were the one trying to get emergency help," McCloskey adds.

Cementex is one of a handful of companies that manufactures insulated tools. Other makers include Certified Insulated Products Corp. (Beltsville, MD), Ideal Industries Inc. (Sycamore, IL), Jensen Tools (Phoenix), Klein Tools (Chicago), and Paladin Tools/Connectool Inc. (Ashland, VA).

And like every manufacturer of data-communications and telecommunications tools and equipment, there are standards manufacturers follow when developing products. Standards for manufacturing insulated tools have been drafted and are amended by the American Society for Testing and Materials (Philadelphia), the International Electrotechnical Commission (Chicago), and the American National Standards Institute (New York City).

Perhaps the most comprehensive standard is astm f1505-94, although most standards on insulated tools are similar. This standard stipulates that insulated tools must be 100% dielectric (meaning it does not conduct electricity) up to 1000V. Tools must also be made with flame-resistant materials within the tool and insulation; possess slip-resistant handles; and retain insulation and tool function throughout a temperature range of -20° to +70°C. Also, if the tool is a pair of pliers, it must have a guard to prevent the hand from slipping on the uncovered metal.

False sense of security

Manufacturers are quick to point out that most hand tools have a plastic coating or slip-on grip on the handles. This may give workers a sense of security, but the plastic coating and grips are merely for hand comfort and appearance, not electrical insulation. To meet astm f1505-94, an insulated tool must have two layers of insulation that are typically bonded to each other and to the tool itself to make a solid unit. Usually consisting of composite rubber, the outer layer must be flame-retardant and impact-resistant. The inner layer must consist of a material known to safety engineers as high-dielectric material that will protect against 1000V alternating current or 1500V direct current.

"Anybody working over 50V or more must use insulated hand tools. Many people think they can just use insulated gloves, but all the gloves in the world are not going to protect you," says Ben Bird, vice president of sales at Certified Insulated Products (Beltsville, MD).

Bird also points out that the worker isn`t the only one liable for not using insulated tools. "If you allow contractors to do work and they are not using insulated tools or in compliance with the osha electrical safety-related work practices, the contractors and the customer are held accountable," he says.

And it can be a costly mistake as well. Bird knows of an instance in which a telecommunications installer dropped a tool in a battery system. "It blew out the systems of one of the contractor`s best customers, and the customer lost $3 million that day," he says, declining to name the company. "If this guy had been using insulated tools, it would have never happened."

And when Osha investigates, the contractor will most likely face hefty fines. The name of the contractor on one Osha citation provided to Cabling Installation & Maintenance by Bird was blackened out, but a description of the violation says it all.

Osha categorizes violations as either willful or serious, meaning it poses a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and the employer knew or should have known of the hazard. Regarding the above violation as "serious," osha determined that "each employee did not use insulated tools or handling equipment when the tools or handling equipment might have made contact with...conductors or parts. Employee(s) performed troubleshooting and repair duties on live electrical-circuits with hand tools such as, but not limited to, wire cutters and pliers that were not properly insulated."

The penalty: A $2250 fine, a drop in the bucket when it comes to some of the cases osha stumbles upon during unannounced inspections. In the case of the three employees of who were killed at the Energy Center, Osha imposed a $70,000 fine because insulated tools were not used at the work site. The penalty was just one that totaled $455,000 in fines osha inspectors had proposed.

"A customer and the contractor must make sure that anyone working for them or on their equipment is in compliance with osha," Bird says. "People often don`t want to spend the money on insulated tools, but your biggest asset is not going to be found on the balance sheet, and your employees think 50V is just a stunner. They think it`s no big deal, but it`s enough in certain situations to stop the heart and if that happens and no one is there with you, you`re as good as dead."

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