In today’s utilities, there are two essential things that need to happen to create a safe utility workplace, both of which are referenced in OSHA’s General Duty Clause. First, employers must provide their employees a workplace free of recognized hazards that can cause death or serious physical harm. Second, employees must comply with occupational safety and health standards, regulations and company rules that are applicable to their conduct at work.
With that said, when it comes to recognizing electrical hazards in the workplace, is it better to guess or to know? This isn’t a tough question for most utility workers to answer; it is better to know. And while today we know a great deal about how to keep our workers safe, many members of our industry have learned some hard lessons about how – and how not to – test for and verify the presence of electricity. Even as recently as the 1990s, the act of fuzzing or buzzing a line was not an uncommon testing and verification method. Fuzzing or buzzing occurs when a worker uses a live-line tool to hold a wrench or similar item near a line and then listens for a buzzing sound given off as the tool approaches an energized circuit part.
In 1994, OSHA first published 29 CFR 1910.269, which required workers to test for and verify the hazard of electricity. Remember that, according to the General Duty Clause, the employer must provide a workplace free of recognized hazards. So, if the hazard of electricity is recognized, it must be addressed. And since OSHA still permitted fuzzing or buzzing in 1994, it was sometimes still used for electrical testing and verification purposes.
A 1995 letter from OSHA to Lonnie Bell at Oglethorpe Power Corp. (see www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=INTERPRETATIONS&p_id=21981) clarified the agency’s position. Mr. Bell had originally posed this question to OSHA: “Will an employer be found in compliance with 1910.269(n)(5) when his or her employees use the practices of fuzzing or buzzing, instead of a voltmeter, to test a line conductor to be grounded to be sure it is deenergized (dead) before the protective ground is installed?”
The agency replied, “Yes, however, the preferred method of testing line conductors to be sure they are deenergized (dead) before protective grounds are installed is by using a high-voltage detector (voltmeter). However, 1910.269(n)(5) permits a circuit to be tested by ‘fuzzing (buzzing)’ but that method should be used only when a high-voltage detector (voltmeter) is not available and when the presence of nominal voltage on the lines or equipment can be detected reliably in consideration of actual workplace conditions. Fuzzing procedures are considered unreliable in detecting voltages of less than 13.2 Y/ 7.62 kV. Fuzzing procedures are discussed in ‘The Lineman's and Cableman's Handbook,’ Eighth Edition, published by McGRAW-HILL,INC., ISBN 0-07-035695-5.”
Other organizations also confirm that fuzzing or buzzing was an accepted work practice at one time. For example, NIOSH Publication No. 88-104, “Preventing Electrocutions by Undetected Feedback Electrical Energy Present in Power Lines” (see www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/88-104/), explains how fuzzing or buzzing once looked in the workplace. According to the publication, “Though the lineman presumed that the line to be spliced had been deenergized, he ‘fuzzed’ it (tested it for voltage) by touching it with pliers held in his gloved hand. When the lineman did not see an arc or hear a buzzing sound, he presumed the line was deenergized, removed his glove, and began to splice the line.”
A second NIOSH report, “Contract Worker Electrocuted While Repairing 13.2 KV Power Line in North Carolina” (see www.cdc.gov/niosh/face/In-house/full8525.html), states the following: “To ‘buzz’ a power line to determine if high voltage is present is a standard procedure followed by linemen.”
Think about this for a moment. Can you picture using a metal object, such as a screwdriver, to determine if electricity is present in a lamp? You put on some leather gloves, unscrew and remove the lightbulb, place the tip of the screwdriver into the lightbulb socket and then listen for fuzzing or buzzing. Does this sound like a good idea?
No, it is not a good idea. This is not a safe way to check for electricity, and if it’s a practice you or anyone you know still engages in, understand that today fuzzing or buzzing can result in injury, fines and even death.
Here’s another example to consider: You are driving a car down the highway and a passenger asks you how fast you are going. Before you answer, the passenger places a Post-it note over the speedometer, obstructing your view. How likely are you to guess the speed you are going within 2 miles per hour? The answer is, not likely. So, imagine that a worker is attempting to use fuzzing or buzzing to determine if electricity is present. The background noise at the job site is very loud and dulling the worker’s senses, similar to the Post-it note referenced earlier. The noise and vibrations are coming from passing highway traffic, local construction equipment and the wind whistling in the worker’s ears. It is noise that the worker cannot stop, something he must deal with as he uses the fuzzing or buzzing technique to detect electricity. Since fuzzing or buzzing is not heard or felt during the test, the worker assumes conditions are safe and proceeds to make contact with the electricity. The end result is tragic, resulting in an electrical outage and a fatality.
Let’s fast-forward from 1994 to the mid-2000s, when the U.S. government realized there was a need to update the 1910.269 standard. OSHA was responsible for the update; the agency’s mission is to reduce serious and fatal workplace incidents using justifiable methods. In addition to obvious changes that needed to be made to the standard – such as a mandate of 100 percent fall protection when working on wooden poles and other structures – it was determined that fuzzing or buzzing needed to be outlawed as an OSHA-compliant method of testing for and verifying electricity.
It took almost 10 years to work through all the revisions, but at last the revised 1910.269 standard was published in 2014. Prior to publishing the revised regulation, OSHA asked for input regarding fuzzing or buzzing. In the end, as previously noted, it was ruled that the method was not an acceptable means of testing for and verifying electricity for worker safety. In fact, it was clearly defined and regulated that electrical testers must be used to test and verify if it is safe to work on an electrical system.
An Unsafe Assumption
While it may seem safe to assume that all utility industry employers and employees strictly adhere to OSHA’s mandates, that is not always the case. Thus, if any electrical workers are still relying on fuzzing or buzzing to test for and verify the presence of electricity, they are engaging in at-risk behavior. This behavior is a distinct violation of the General Duty Clause. OSHA regulations now clearly state that testing must be done with a device designed to detect voltage. According to 1910.269(m)(3)(vi), “After the applicable requirements in paragraphs (m)(3)(i) through (m)(3)(v) of this section have been followed and the system operator gives a clearance to the employee in charge, the employer shall ensure that the lines and equipment are deenergized by testing the lines and equipment to be worked with a device designed to detect voltage.”
Today’s electrical workers are supplied with training and equipment through their unions, vocational programs, equipment manufacturers, OSHA outreach training programs and employers. They are afforded highly sensitive, accurate and reliable electrical testing equipment designed to detect voltage. Electrical testers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They can be hand-held, with an analog or digital read-out, and offer a variety alarms for worker safety.
So, with all the resources available to electrical workers, there is no good reason why anyone should rely on fuzzing or buzzing for their personal safety. Let’s all do our part and follow the rules. If a rule states that workers shall use electrical testers, use them. And if a worker commits an unsafe act that is in direct contradiction to rules that have been written, communicated, inspected and enforced, that worker should be coached, disciplined or terminated to prevent recurrence. In the end, this is for the worker’s own benefit. It is much easier to coach, discipline or dismiss a worker than to enable him or her to incur a serious career-altering injury by performing an unsafe and unapproved work procedure.
About the Author: Andrew Salvadore, CSP, is vice president of health, safety and environmental for Henkels & McCoy Group Inc.