Keeping electrical workers safe


By Simon Mouat, Vice President Energy, Schneider Electric Australia
Wednesday, 05 July, 2017


Preventive maintenance

Safe Work Australia’s latest statistics show that the electricity, gas, water and waste services industries ranked fifth worst on the list of worker deaths by industry of workplace in year-to-date 2017.

Working with electricity has always been dangerous, that’s the reason we have such rigorous training and licensing standards across the country. While these statistics represent a marginal improvement on the same time period last year, every death is one too many. Whether the energy network is expanding or ageing, keeping people safe during work is the most important part of any electrical company’s business — be it their employees, their customers or the public.

So what are the latest advancements and how can we use technology to improve safety for electrical workers?

Training tools

Newer and smarter tools and training techniques are being used to reduce human error. There’s no doubt that proper training mechanisms help reduce human error and save lives.

In Gartner’s top 10 strategic technology trends for 2017, the research firm predicted that immersive technologies such as virtual and augmented reality will dramatically transform the way individuals interact with each other and with software over the next five years. We are already seeing a rise in enterprise uptake of this technology for training and safety purposes today. Virtual reality and augmented reality applications are improving safety by providing visual, easy-to-understand, step-by-step directions that can guide operators and field crews through tasks, including displaying energised parts in the equipment.

Simulator-based training, which is already being used in the utility industry, is continuing to evolve and grow in sophistication and scope, particularly with the leaps in virtual reality technology. Virtual reality training, currently being provided in some industries, uses a computer-generated 3D environment where employees can test and train within a realistic, controlled setting. For example, operators can learn to use complex equipment, practice safety procedures, familiarise themselves with the layout of a plant or even simulate dangerous situations (without the consequences of failure) so they can react quickly in a real-life situation. In virtual reality, you can touch live parts such as busbars without a fatal electric shock.

Sensors and analytics

In the past, businesses have been faced with exponential costs for achieving total control over risks in their electrical networks; thankfully this has changed of late with the integration of modern digital technology. This has been seen at the utility level, where the safety of electrical workers is being improved by breaking down silos. An integration of millions of data points has driven the industry towards greater visibility and better decision-making in order to improve safety of operations. This same digital technology, primarily sensors and analytics, is now being integrated into every aspect of work, by utilities. It not only improves safety, but also boosts security, guarantees interoperability, lowers costs, streamlines operations and saves money for utilities and its customers.

Most importantly, from a safety point of view, the integration of sensors and analytics means that it’s easier to identify and analyse patterns of events that lead to accidents, making it easier to prevent, detect and resolve potentially dangerous circumstances before they arise. In addition to the collection of these data points through sensors, advanced analytics are essential to understanding and actioning the data collected. For example, by correlating data from vibrations, temperature and voltage, algorithms can inform operators of a deviation towards a dangerous operating zone before any unnoticed defect leads to a possible catastrophic equipment failure such as a transformer fire or a turbine blow-up.

Intelligent equipment

Intelligent equipment and remote operations allow for better monitoring and safer activities. For instance, smart technology can track energy usage and identify usage spikes that could indicate a public safety hazard. Sensor networks also allow utilities to quickly detect abnormal situations and immediately start containment measures. Operators can be protected using technology that allows them to work from a remote location, for example mitigate arc flash hazards. No matter how well trained workers are, they will always be safer, operating equipment from a distance. While these are only a few examples of modern technology improving safety in the electrical industry, these technological changes are just the beginning.

Image supplied by Schneider Electric.

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