When you think of static electricity, you probably think of no more than a minor nuisance brought on by two surfaces rubbing against each other. This often becomes more noticeable in the winter months of dry climates as humidity levels are lower. However, static electricity can be much more than a simple irritant. According to the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), fire departments respond to approximately 280 industrial accidents involving static electricity each year.
Our team of Texas OSHA lawyers at Cotney Construction Law come equipped with years of experience in the construction industry and knowledge of which Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards address electrical safety. In this article, we review what activities generate static electricity, why static electricity is dangerous, and how you can identify and control these hazards. If you have received an OSHA citation related to electrical hazards, seek out a Texas OSHA attorney familiar with OSHA regulations immediately.
What Activities Generate Static Electricity and Why Is It Dangerous?
Static electricity can be defined as the imbalance of electric charges within or on the surface of a substance, typically produced by friction. One surface becomes positively charged and the other becomes negatively charged. These surfaces can be two solids, a solid and a liquid, or two immiscible liquids. This static electricity remains on the surface until it is safely discharged or is able to jump to another surface as a spark. Some common processes on construction sites capable of producing a sufficient static spark are as follows:
- The settling of a solid or liquid through a liquid, such as rust through petroleum
- The flow of liquids through pipes or fine filters, such as mixtures of petroleum and water
- The ejection of droplets from a nozzle, such as filling a tank with oil
- The vigorous rubbing together and subsequent separation of certain synthetic polymers, such as a polypropylene rope through PVC-gloved hands
Something as simple as the handling of plastic pipes or the normal operation of machine belts can lead to a high level of static electricity that could discharge when sufficient amounts of combustible substances are located nearby, leading to an explosion. Filtering, pumping, and stirring of flammable liquids can also lead to fires and explosions as a result of static electricity.
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Identifying and Mitigating These Hazards
The majority of electrical accidents result from one of three factors: unsafe environment, unsafe work practices, or unsafe equipment. The first step in mitigating these hazards is to recognize what kinds of materials are likely to present a static electricity hazard. According to the NFPA, solvents that are soluble in water do not build up static electricity. This includes liquids such as alcohols and ketones. Solvents and fuels from petroleum like benzene, toluene, and gasoline, on the other hand, are more likely to hold a charge when poured or flowed through pipes. It is also important to be aware of the optimal conditions for igniting a liquid — halfway between the upper and lower flammability limits or a temperature that produces a vapor in air concentration.
If you know you’re going to be working with flammable liquids, the next point of action is prevention, such as guarding, grounding, the use of insulation, and the use of electrical protective devices. Grounding items like drums and totes create a path for the static electricity to safely dissipate via a grounding cable connecting the metal item to a grounding assembly. Similarly, insulation can help to coat conductors and stop or reduce the flow of electrical currents. Guarding, on the other hand, simply involves locating and enclosing electrical equipment to ensure workers don’t accidentally come into contact with its live parts. Last, but certainly not least, circuit protection devices can be used to stop the flow of the electric current in the event of an overload, ground fault, or short circuit in the wiring system.
These measures, combined with safe work practices like deenergizing equipment before inspection or repair, can greatly decrease the risk of dangerous fires and explosions on your job site. Contact one of our knowledgeable Texas OSHA attorneys to ensure your workplace is in compliance with electrical safety and health standards before your next inspection.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.