Ensuring Supervision and Training Standards Essential to Electrical Safety

Safety

Oct 15, 2018

Mark Graham joined the military at the age of 17 but after a few years he decided to pursue his dream of being an electrician.

He was only three years into his apprenticeship when his worst nightmare came true.

“I was working at a raw sewage plant running conduit while on an 8-foot wooden step ladder,” he begins. “I had just finished drilling holes in the concrete ceiling slab to install strapping to hold the conduit in place. As I lowered the powerless drill it was parallel with the slotted ventilation holes on the 3000 amp 600 volt bus duct that was suspension-mounted on trapezes.

“The drill bit glided through the one of the slots, but the heat on the end of the drill bit melted through the rubber insulation jacket that wrapped the copper bus bars. This created a dead short to ground, causing an explosion. It threw me off the ladder.”

Graham was alone in the building so he ran outside for help. “I could smell and feel my hair and skin burning,” he recalls.

An Ottawa Carleton Public Works truck was driving by and the occupants tried to douse the flames with blankets.

“At the time all I could see was grey, my eyes were grey,” says Graham. His hardhat had melted into his head and the pain was unbearable.

He woke up in the hospital six weeks later, unable to see. “I told my parents I wish I hadn’t survived.”

Graham had second and third degree burns to 60% of his body, and they had to use parts of the undamaged skin to create grafts to replace his other skin.

Today Graham is speaking out about the tragedy that happened so long ago to help ensure others don’t suffer a similar fate.

“Communicating with others and proper training and supervision is critical,” he says.

Industry experts are worried that despite the advances in training and safety that have taken place over the years, there is a movement to relax the rules, putting new workers and particularly young people at risk.

Adam Goulet, 18, knows he is very lucky to have escaped a similar fate. At 16 he was hired by an Ottawa area contractor to work as a labourer but found himself doing electrical work without training or supervision. He had been promised an apprenticeship, but it never came.

At first, he stayed quiet; his biggest worry was getting caught by inspectors.

But eventually he realized how dangerous it was to be doing electrical work without training or supervision. He finally told his teacher, who advised him to get out. Like many young teenagers, he was afraid he wouldn’t find another job but eventually met someone from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and he was hired on as an apprentice.

“I now feel safe at work, knowing I am being supervised and getting the proper training,” he added.

Ottawa contractor Roch Picknell says it’s very alarming that some contractors are allowing untrained individuals to be doing electrical work without being registered as an apprentice and properly supervised.

Picknell belongs to the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO) whose members work with IBEW electricians to ensure there is a high level of training and focus on safety.

“When you hire an ECAO contractor for electrical services you know you are going to get the work done correctly and safely,” Picknell said.

“The ECAO is a strong advocate for promoting the integrity of their trade, safety and professionalism,” says Executive Director Graeme Aitken.

“Allowing work to be done unsafely by untrained and uncertified workers puts everyone at risk,” he added.

James Barry, Executive Chairman of the IBEW-Construction Council of Ontario, says there are rules for compulsory trades like electrician regarding the number of journeypersons to apprentices on the job to ensure proper oversight and safety.

“Unfortunately, ratios are not being enforced and we continue to hear stories of young people doing work that could cause them serious injury or death,” he says.

Barry, who was a former member of the Board of Governors for the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT), is concerned it is not fulfilling its role to elevate the status of the trades and to protect the public and young workers through the enforcement of ratios.

Barry is also worried about a potential move by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to reduce the length of an apprenticeship and change the scope of practice for electricians as a shortcut to addressing a skilled trade demand.

“Right now, the IBEW has no trouble finding apprentices because we ensure they have proper training, a fair wage and a safe work environment. If there is a lowering of training and safety standards, then that would hurt, not help, in attracting people to the trade.”

Graham agrees it’s important to at the very minimum maintain the current training standards given the complexity and risks of the job.

“I don’t want other people to go through what I’ve been through. It’s a place you don’t want to go,” he warns.

This article was first published on Powering Communities, an online initiative of the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The ECAO and IBEW are a formidable team of employers and electricians who are recognized industry leaders in delivering safe, stable and high quality electrical/telecommunications construction and maintenance services. Find out more: www.poweringcommunities.ca

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