Those who work in manufacturing plants face a wide variety of health and safety challenges. Some of them are obvious or well-publicized and understood by both management and workers. But others don't get discussed very often.
One of the problems that gets too little attention is the appropriate use of rubber insulating equipment to minimize electrical risks and potentially fatal electrocution injuries.
Managing Electrical Risks
No matter what industry you're operating it, chances are you face some electrical safety issues and challenges. These will vary dramatically, of course – a hydroelectric power plant will face different issues than a telecommunications company. Still, despite these differences, the key to keeping workers safe from electrical hazards hinges on the same thing: awareness.
Awareness takes many forms. Workers need to, first, know about the electrical protective equipment that will keep them safe. Second, they must also understand the importance of regularly inspecting and testing the equipment to make sure it continues to meet all safety guidelines. This regular testing, moreover, ensures compliance and reduces long-term costs that result from poor equipment maintenance.
Insulating Equipment Use Lags Behind Standards
Despite the lack of general awareness about the importance of rubber insulating equipment, it's still on the radar for both state and federal regulators. Numerous standards govern the regular use and testing of insulating equipment, and employers can face heavy fines for not complying with them. Most of these are authored by OSHA, ASTM, and the NFPA. They are broad-based guidelines that apply to any equipment that poses a risk of contact with a voltage of 50 volts AC or higher. One critical focus of these guidelines is on the use of insulating gloves and sleeves for anyone who might come into contact with potentially energized conductors.
Yet, despite the threat of fines, compliance lags far behind the goals. The challenge comes from both management teams that seem unwilling to invest in this important equipment and from workers who are either reluctant to use it or don't understand that it can make the difference between life and death.
Using the Right Equipment
A variety of guidelines touch on when employees must use gloves and when sleeves are mandated. For example, the OSHA's 29CFR 1910.269 specifies that rubber insulating gloves and leather protectors must be worn by any 269 employee (employees qualified to work with power generation, distribution, and transmission) who is working within a Minimum Approach Distance to exposed energized conductors. If the worker's upper arms and shoulders are within this defined distance, they must wear sleeves instead of gloves to offer expanded protection.
However, it is important to note that not all rubber gloves are created equally. It is important to understand the potential electrical risks in your workplace so that you can select the gloves that will do the best job. Gloves are rated (again based on the OSHA 29 CFR 1910.137 standard) based on the potential voltage that the glove will protect against – ranging from a charge of 500 volts up to 36,000 volts for the most protective pair.
To simplify the purchasing decision for companies or workers, the safety rating of the gloves are indicated on a tag that is attached to them. These tags are color-coded based on the maximum use voltage. The voltage protection for the six classes of gloves is provided below:
- Class 00 (Beige Label): Max use voltage of 500 volts AC/ proof tested to 2,500 volts AC
- Class 0 (Red Label): Max use voltage of 1,000 volts AC/ proof tested to 5,000 volts AC
- Class 1 (White Label): Max use voltage of 7,500 volts AC/ proof tested to 10,000 volts AC
- Class 2 (Yellow Label): Max use voltage of 17,000 volts AC/ proof tested to 20,000 volts AC
- Class 3 (Green Label): Max use voltage of 26,500 volts AC/ proof tested to 30,000 volts AC
- Class 4 (Orange Label): Max use voltage of 36,000 volts AC/ proof tested to 40,000 volts AC
Beyond Purchasing: Testing the Equipment
Simply purchasing gloves, however, is not the end of the story. Regularly testing rubber insulating products is also crucial. Test gloves at least once every six months to ensure that they are still protecting up to their rated voltage. If you're in a low-risk industry like telecommunications, you can extend this time-frame to nine months.
The testing time-frame is different for rubber sleeves and blankets. These should be tested at least once every 12 months. Other rubber insulating products such as line hoses and covers do not need to be tested regularly. You should still, however, clean and visually inspect them regularly to ensure they are still fully functional.
Remember to also test these products before using them for the first time – even though the manufacturer has tested them prior to shipment. This additional testing provides extra peace of mind and should be performed within two months of the product being received.
There are several steps involved in inspecting and testing rubber protection equipment to ensure that it still meets safety parameters. These are clearly spelled out by the ASTM guidelines. Testing starts with a visual check, both inside and out, removing marks associated with previous tests, and washing the rubber with the appropriate cleaning solution.
After the visual inspection, proceed to electrical testing. The results of these tests should be recorded and then the gloves, sleeves, or blankets are appropriately packed for safe storage in a way that does not put stress on the rubber.
These tests can be performed in-house or by sending the products out to an independent testing facility. If you opt for an independent facility, find one that is NAIL-accredited (National Association of Independent Laboratories for Protective Equipment Testing). The NAIL accreditation means that you can rest assured that quality testing was performed by highly skilled staff, with reliable results.
No matter which laboratory performs the testing, the costs of testing rubber insulating gloves is relatively modest. Testing generally costs less than $10 per pair of gloves, a small expense to get the most out of gloves that can cost upwards of $200 for higher class voltage protection. This is a much smarter alternative than letting the gloves wear out and replacing them prematurely.
Some testing facilities will offer to repair problems they identify with the equipment. This is generally not the best route to go down. Even though some flaws could be repaired, it's better not to take chances. Replace defective goods and assure your workers' safety.
Rubber insulating equipment is a must for anyone who works with any electrical hazards. By selecting the right fit and properly maintaining the equipment, you can keep everyone protected and get the most out of your investment.