So Many Electrical Safety Terms – What Do They Mean?

worker wearing hardhat looking up from scaffolding

Here at e-Hazard, we field many phone calls from clients and potential clients concerning the need to make sure that the site’s electrical personnel are properly certified.

This conversation typically evolves into a quick training session on a variety of terms and what these terms actually mean. To clarify the issue a bit, I have decided to explain them in a list format, hopefully to alleviate any confusion and to explain what is actually required per a variety of agencies. Here we go!

1.Certified – This term means one of the following (per Dictionary.com):

a. having or proved by a certificate
b. guaranteed; reliably endorsed
c. legally declared insane

Assuming that you do not want your electrical workers declared insane, we will stick with the first two definitions. Then the question arises, “Who can certify my electrical workers as electricians?”

The answer to that is interesting. Any training organization can issue a certificate of completion, a certificate of attendance, or a certificate proving hands-on demonstration of specific skills. These certificates are only as good as the organization issuing the certificates. The organizations apply for and are granted Continuing Educational Accreditation by an agency. The certificates earned after training can then be turned in by the individual students in their respective states as proof that they have earned required Continuing Education Credits (CEUs).

Other options for certification could be in certain tasks; for instance, an electrician might become certified as a medium voltage cable splicer from a manufacturer of a particular cable splicing method. Certain training organizations may also “certify” someone in fiber optic fusion splicing, or 480-volt cable termination on a specialty cable for a nuclear power plant. These are all great certifications to have, and the required skill sets are often gained after months or even years of training. Keep in mind, though, that the “certification” is only as good as the certifying body behind the paper.

      2. Qualified – Again, referencing the same dictionary, qualification means several things:

a. having the qualities, accomplishments, etc.,that fit a person for some function, office, or the like
b. having the qualities, accomplishments, etc., required by law or custom for getting, having, or exercising a right, holding an office, or the like

The second definition certainly fits our discussion. A “qualified” electrical worker is discussed in standards like the NFPA 70® National Electrical Code (NEC), National Electric Safety Code (NESC), and NFPA 70E®. OSHA also refers to the term “qualified” in many electrical standards, like 1910.331 and 1910.269. One is considered qualified when a certain accomplishment has been met, and this accomplishment is backed up with some sort of documentation.

The electrical world is similar here to other professional achievements. For instance, a medical student can complete all requirements of the doctorate program, graduate Summa Cum Laude, and walk proudly across the stage on graduation night. This, however, does not automatically make the student a doctor. Further qualifying steps are required. There are boards to pass, and some states require the graduate to serve as a Doctor in Residence. Once these requirements have been completed successfully, the student will receive a letter from the state of licensure, and the student-graduate officially can don the full title of “Doctor.” This individual is now a qualified physician.

You can follow a similar trail in what is required to become a Qualified Electrical Worker (QEW). OSHA requires that workers in the electrical field be qualified. The qualification must come from the employer, who is the qualification body. The employer must provide a method of qualification, including documentation. If a state, county, or municipality employs someone who is required to be a QEW, that governmental body would have to provide a method of qualification and documentation.

Some employers believe that an electrical license meets the requirements of qualification. This is not true, however, from an OSHA standpoint. Theoretically, a licensed electrician, who may hold 10 or 20 state licenses, could start work tomorrow at your company, but that person would NOT be a QEW at your facility until your company put the new-hire through a qualification process (usually included in your written Electrical Safety Program) and deemed this new-hire a QEW. Until then, you have a licensed, unqualified electrician. The same holds true if you hire an electrical engineer, instrument technician, etc. The company that the person works for must do the qualifying.

3. Licensed – Licensing is much simpler. A license gets issued by a licensing body. In the case of Electrical Licenses and Professional Engineer licenses, the governmental body (usually a state) will issue a license once the candidate has met all of the requirements of education, work experience, time in the trade, etc. He or she must also pass a licensure exam. The exam is usually a formal exam at a state examination facility.

Once the exam is passed, and all other requirements have been met and proven, the candidate receives a license. This license may be good for 2 years, for example, with requirements that the license holder completes a certain number of CEUs from an approved/accredited CEU body (see “certified” above). The CEUs are required to maintain the license issued by the licensing agency.

4. Unqualified – Agencies like OSHA also cover the concept of  “unqualified.” This concept’s understanding is vital in the electrical industry. I could hire a licensed electrician who has been certified in multiple specialty tasks, and put her to work in a nuclear power facility doing very basic electrical troubleshooting. Until this new worker has completed all of the site requirements under the written ESP to become a QEW, this highly-trained, impressively-certified electrical worker remains, in fact, unqualified.

Unqualified, however, does not mean completely clueless about electrical hazards. As a matter of fact, OSHA 1910.332 requires that unqualified workers “shall also be trained in and familiar with any electrically related safety practices not specifically addressed by 1910.331 through 1910.335 but which are necessary for their safety“.  In the electrical sense of the word, a person remains “unqualified” unless he or she has received proper training and skills listed in 1910.332, and a host of other skills for tasks such as work above 600 volts, or specialty functions like energized work (covered in 1910.333(C)(2). 

5. Competent –  In many cases, an employee or supervisor must be deemed as a “competent person.” This is the case in Canada, for instance, in regards to many work situations. One such situation is the Canadian requirements for Confined Space. A “competent person” is someone who is qualified because he or she has knowledge, training, and experience to organize work; is familiar with Canadian OHS rules; and has enhanced knowledge of potential or actual dangers to health or safety in the specific work situation.

This same concept is applied to electrical workers in places like New Zealand and Australia, where qualification and competency must exist hand-in-hand to perform electrical tasks.  As an example, in New Zealand, a registered electrical worker (similar to licensed worker in the US) must also pass a board-approved competency program for electrical safety, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, and basic first aid. Competency programs usually involve a step above Qualified Worker, and involve special skill sets in the competency program.

6. Affected and Authorized – Typically, the terms Affected and Authorized are found within OSHA 1910.147 Control of Hazardous Energy and company lockout/tagout/verify programs (LO/TO/V). The terms are defined under the definition section of 1910.147, and read as follows:

Affected employee. An employee whose job requires him/her to operate or use a machine or equipment on which servicing or maintenance is being performed under lockout or tagout, or whose job requires him/her to work in an area in which such servicing or maintenance is being performed.

Authorized employee. A person who locks out or tags out machines or equipment in order to perform servicing or maintenance on that machine or equipment. An affected employee becomes an authorized employee when that employee’s duties include performing servicing or maintenance covered under this section.

Affected employees are often “affected” by the actions of a QEW in the process of locking out a machine to work on it safely. Before the switch is operated for LO/TO/V, the QEW usually informs all affected employees, and then de-energizes the equipment and the machine is locked out per company procedure. Once locks are cleared, again the QEW informs affected employees of the state of the machine, and production may re-start.

In the Authorized employee realm, this individual is “authorized” by the company to hang and remove locks within the LO/TO/V program. This authorization is for the process of hanging and removing locks, but this authority does not bleed over into actions or behaviors that would require a QEW (i.e. opening switch enclosures to verify a safe electrical work condition). I could be authorized, but NOT qualified to open a panel. I could also be Qualified as a QEW, but not necessarily Authorized to hang or remove a company lock for LO/TO/V.

I Get It Now!

Hopefully this review of terms will help you understand the requirements and clear up any confusion on the issues at hand.

Maybe one day, you too can become a qualified electrical worker (QEW) who is a licensed electrician or engineer, with required CEUs from a certified body, authorized for lockout/tagout/verification procedures, and competent in specialized tasks as you interface with affected workers in your workplace.

Whew!

AUTHOR’S NOTE: e-Hazard’s electrical safety training is certainly great to use in this qualification process because it is logically and thoroughly prepared. We go over all applicable OSHA requirements, cover areas of NFPA 70E® in-depth, and teach industry best practices that may exceed codes and regulations but provide employees with the best and most sensible protection available from burns, shocks, falls, etc. This is a great addition to a qualification process, but again, it does not “certify” or “qualify” an individual. Certificates are good to have, and we give out completion/participation certificates for our courses; other organizations do the same thing. However, none of this matters in OSHA’s eyes IF the employee cannot demonstrate this knowledge in a practical, job-specific application.

Ken Sellars

Ken Sellars

Ken Sellars is an instructor of electrical safety, NEC, Grounding/Bonding and Arc Flash Safety courses nationwide. Read more about Ken.

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12 Responses

  1. This is the best article I’ve ever seen. I hope you don’t mind if I print this out and use it a lot. This gets thrown around all the time and this is a great explanation of what it all means. Love it and will use it in all my classes.

    1. Thank you, Roger. These terms really get interchanged too often and bring confusion to the industry. I appreciate your response.

  2. Outstanding Ken! That is some much needed clarification. As an Educator myself, I find it very helpful to have an understanding of these terms.

  3. Does “employer” mean manger or supervisor? Or is a peer that is qualified count as the “employer” for the demonstration purposes?

    1. This is up to the employer. THEY are responsible. If they delegate this to a more qualified assessor who is not a manager, the company/employer is still responsible from OSHA’s perspective.

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