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Power tools and plumbers

This presentation covers the subject of power tools and plumbers:

    • What you need to know;
    • What the dangers are; and
    • What checks plumbers should be doing on their power tools.

“One of the biggest, most common and serious dangers is electrical injuries. This occurs when electrical current from the source of whatever electrical tool the plumber is connected to flows between their hands and feet. This happens when a person touches an energised line. The electrical energy is looking for the shortest path to the ground and will pass from the hands through the body to reach the ground through the feet. When this happens, a person’s heart and lungs are frequently damaged by the electrical current – and the person gets electrocuted because the electricity is looking to get to the ground in order to stabilise,” says Coetzee.

“The body is reliant on its heart and lungs, and when they start burning they shut down. Even if this type of electrocution comes from a weaker electrical source the person can still sustain serious injuries. A lot of times it burns the hands, the fingers and up the arm, from where the electrical force has been touched. In cases where the person has actually touched the source of the power from very high voltage or high amperage lines – this is where serious injury will occur.

“Therefore, working with electrical tools, whether a grinder, a drill, or even just an electrical extension cord brought on to site in order to plug in the power tools are potentially dangerous when used. The plumbing contractor needs to understand the dangers, and take the time to explain to employees not just what the dangers are, but why it actually happens to employees.

Coetzee says: “Employees need to be made to understand why this actually happened to them in the past when they’ve plugged in an electrical tool and felt a small shock. They may have been tempted to just laugh it off and continued without questioning what has just occurred. There are two main reasons why such jolts occur:

    1. Incorrect or damaged wiring
    • Lack of inspection
    • Poor maintenance
    • Rushing the job

“The first one is incorrect or damaged wiring. When buying tools there’s always a right tool for the job – so plumber should ensure they buy their tools in good condition from a reputable merchant or manufacturer. There are cheaper tools on the market and it is often tempting for a plumber to buy the cheapest tool on the market. Buyers also need to take a look at the scope of work that they will perform with the tool, and how often they’re going to be using this tool, and how much pressure or stress will be put on the tool. Oftentimes, one goes for the cheapest make because it does the job once or twice. But if a plumber has to use this tool for 8 or 10 hours a day, there is far greater impact or stress put on a portable electrical tool. Plumbers in this instance should rather get a tool that can handle that volume or type of work. So I recommend plumbers do adequate research before purchasing the cheapest tool, which can sometimes come with the incorrect cable or plug. Just cutting it off to put on the three-prong or two-prong of their own without getting this inspected is wrong. Often the principal contractor on site will refuse to accept such a makeshift tool unless it’s been checked by an electrician,” says Coetzee.

“A plumber might consider that attitude excessive – after all, to their mind it’s just two wires live and neutral, and what else is needed? Well, it needs to be earthed and many power tools come without an earth wire. One has to ensure tools have been earthed correctly, especially when being used on a construction site. When it comes to extension cords, many are too thin to be fit for purpose because they have simply been just cut and connected to another electrical extension. Sometimes on a construction site, the source of power is far from where work is taking place. While this is a constant frustration for sub-contractors, they still have to perform. While this may not be your fault does not mean it’s not within your control: find another solution such as purchasing a generator even if this is an expensive option.

“Many plumbers have gone the route of purchasing a generator for future use because they realise the importance of its cost benefit in avoiding work stoppages. After perhaps a few projects, it could have paid for itself. On the other hand, some plumbers prefer just to get longer extension cord – in which case they should not be connected to each other. Rather buy one designed to go the required number of meters even if it costs a bit more,” says Coetzee.

“Look out for situations where this problem may arise as plumbers are charged with certain responsibilities on site, and that is to look after the power tools their employer has purchased for the business. Many employees are subcontracted by their employer and consequently are required to have their own toolbox, own vehicle, and other equipment – in which case if its damaged it’s for their own cost. However, most plumbers work in companies where the company purchases that toolbox for them, providing all the tools and the necessary equipment – and they expect the plumber to look after it. There’s certain disciplinary implications if tools are damaged.

“From an employee standpoint, the damage often comes from a lack of inspection. As to what this means, when the plumber takes the tool in hand, they can generally visually see if there’s something wrong. In this event, they should return it for a replacement. In addition, lack of inspections is not simply not checking against a check sheet, but not checking against a check sheet for that job – and against the actual tool. Often plumbers merely sit inside their bakkie with a safety file open, going through the check list, ticking everything off for the day, for the sole reason of ensuring the paperwork is in place in case an auditor or safety officer comes around. No check is actually being done on the tool itself,” he says.

“It is the actual tool itself is that needs to be inspected – not just appeasing the safety officer. Down the line, the tool experiencing a lack of inspections may break and perhaps cause an incident or accident on site – potentially even costing the life of the operator. No plumber wants it on their conscience that they’re responsible for an accident – so how checks are done is extremely important.

“Poor maintenance is the second reason for incorrect or damaged wiring. This is generally done by supervisors or employers. Although the general inspections, registers and checklists need to be done by one’s employees on site, it is the employer’s responsibility as a supervisor to ensure maintenance programmes are in place for company tools. This can be done periodically, with a lot of plumbers doing so weekly. For instance, on a Friday afternoon all the tools are returned to the stores for the storemen to inspect, check they’re working and ensuring they are ready again for Monday morning. This practice is to be encouraged.

“In some cases, the practice is for the supervisor of a team to inspect tools on Friday, and issue them back again on Monday. As the supervisor issues a tool s/he does the checklist and updates the safety file. This is also a good way of doing maintenance and inspections, provided one keeps in mind that the paperwork is not just a tick box exercise, but an actual physical check of the tools.

“Another issue arises when rushing a job, sometimes the fault of the employee, but also as a result of the employer pushing the workers to do a job even though the tools are not safe to use. One might excuse this by saying ‘we don’t have the time to go and buy another tool, we have to use the one that we currently have’. This is even though using a damaged tool, or a tool that is not safe to use, has consequences that could be dire. If an employer allows employees to do so they could be held liable for any incident or accident that happens.

“Do not rush a job with damaged tools that could have a big impact on employees or clients,” says Coetzee.

    1. Overloading
    • Too many tools
    • Incorrect wiring
    • Poor preparation

“The second reason for electrical injury comes from the overloading of the DB board which stems from plugging in too many tools. If a plumber has incorrect wiring, or is trying to pull too much voltage through without the correct wiring for the tool, or an electrical extension cord, and poor preparation – this goes a long way to causing overloading. Poor preparation may consist of not doing a site inspection to check where the electricity is sourced from, or not checking how many other contractors are working at the same time. That may be the main contractor’s responsibility, but it becomes the plumber’s concern when still required to do their work.

“Therefore, when being pressurised to complete a job, the plumber should take a step back for a few minutes to see if it can be done safely, as there is always a way to make it safe, even if the tools being used are going to have to work overtime, or in different areas.

HIRA and other tips for use

    • Appoint a power tool inspector in terms of Construction regulation 24 (e) / Electrical Machinery Regulation 9
    • HIRA – risk assessment – Inspection, Use and Storage of Power Tools
    • Inspect tools before starting work – What are you checking/maintenance schedule

“Just like with hand tools, an employer must appoint a power tool inspector. When on a construction site, take a look at construction regulation 24 (e), and the electrical machinery regulation, depending on which one is being used. For power tools, its electrical machine regulation, section nine. And then take a look at HIRA (hazard identification and risk assessment) which is extremely important for any tools being used. When it comes to HIRA, ensure that the tools under use, specifically power tools, are regularly inspected.

“Don’t just include the scope of work, but use an issue-based and task-based risk assessment, the issue-based assessment being the power tool – so as to know every possible risk and hazard associated with that power tool. Then include the scope of work for the actual task being performed. HIRA risk assessments must be more detailed on the type of tool being used – not just listed as ‘portable electrical tools’.

“Many people omit the risk assessment on the storage of power tools, to ensure it is a clean and safe environment, not just chucked in the back of the van. This can be a quick visual inspection in addition to the register and checklist that is performed daily on portable electrical tools.

“Then a final question should be: is there a maintenance schedule? There are a few things that need to be checking for electrical power tools:

    • Cables in good condition
    • Are they free from joints
    • Cable properly secured
    • Switches are in good working condition
    • Casing free of damage
    • Equipment in good working order
    • Sign of overheating and burn marks
    • Labelling/ Identification according to standard
    • Equipment has guards on
    • Handles are secure and in place
    • Polarity of plug
    • Condition of earthing

This is a generalised list and although there is a separate checklist for a grinder, all of this can be used for a grinder as well.

“Plumbers need to be asking themselves, do they have a maintenance schedule? Are they taking the tools in to be checked? Do they take them to their stores or perhaps even back to the manufacturer for maintenance?”

Written by Eamonn Ryan based on an IOPSA Toolbox Talk presentation by Chris Coetzee – director of OHS Savvy Consulting (Pty) Ltd, HSE Member of IOPSA and Technical Member of SAIOSH

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