Electrical Safety in the Workplace: the story of Tim Martin

It’s an unfortunate truth but occupational health and safety policies are often overlooked by both managers and employees, as something that is either too boring or just a matter of paperwork.  Safe Work Australia Month is an awareness campaign designed by the Queensland Government to contradict these common views and instil a new workplace safety culture.  Running through October, it’s a bold move that traces it roots to the countless unnecessary deaths that have occurred because of lacklustre safe work practices.

Tim Martin was one life cut shot by unsafe working methods.

Speaking at a Safe Work Australia Month event in Brisbane, Tim’s father Bill Martin, spoke of his son’s cheeky friendliness and bright potential. At the age of 17, Tim was only a second year electrical apprentice when he was tragically killed by overhead power lines.

Simple safety measures could have prevented this incident. In 1999, Tim was operating an elevated work platform when he came too close to high voltage power lines. A huge electrical current arched across the gap between the platform and the wires, electrocuting Tim and leaving him with severe burns to most of his body. Barely a month later, Tim died in the intensive care unit of a Brisbane hospital.

The unfortunate fact is that Tim’s tragic death is not an isolated incident. Approximately four people are killed in electrical incidents every year and more than 3000 workplace accidents are reported to the Electrical Safety Office in that same time period. These figures are a result of poor safe work habits. In the case of Tim’s death, several mistakes were made:

  • The vehicle Tim operated was parked in an exclusion zone
  • The correct personal protective equipment (PPE) was not used
  • As an apprentice, Tim was too inexperienced to operate the elevated work platform within close proximity to overhead power lines
  • Tim’s supervisor was not properly observing the high risk work being conducted
In these cases that involve death, it is all too easy to lay blame on either the victim or a co-worker, but in the eyes of Tim’s father neither culprit was truly responsible. Bill Martin puts it down to a workplace culture that has yet to fully grapple with the demands of OHS standards or come to terms with the permanent consequences of poor OHS training.

In his speech to a Safe Work Month event, Bill Martin spoke of a culture in the electrical industry that normalises close calls with electrical work hazards. Terms like ‘getting zapped’ or ‘feeling a belt’ serve only to downplay the inherent risks that come with electrical work. In turn, this leads a safety culture not fully equipped to prevent the worst case scenario.

“Safety is about relationships, not rules.”- Bill Martin.

This is one point that Bill emphasised, and one that is based on his years of experience working in the field of workplace health and safety. All too often, a safety manager can be excessively process driven, especially when it comes to focusing on the various forms and risk assessments required under OHS legislation. With all this attention being spent on paperwork, not enough time is spent on education, communication and consultation between the various duty holders. This in turn means that crucial safety information is not being conveyed

between various stakeholders when it needs to be the most. In the case of Tim, the required PPE and insulation gear was not worn because the need for it was not properly communicated. As Bill Martin said, “safety has got to be embedded into the DNA of a business.” Such an approach could very well ensure all levels of an organisation are aware of their responsibilities and roles – a goal that paperwork and risk assessments cannot achieve on their own.

When we witness the heartache and pain caused by the loss of life – especially that of a young worker – the seriousness of not just electrical safety but safe work practices more generally, becomes clear. Bill Martin’s speech emphasised a different way to think about work safe procedures. Rather than approach it as a series of forms needing to be completed, Bill promoted a view that holds safety as just another aspect of work.

For more information, you can watch Tim’s story here. If you would like more details on Safe Work Australia Month 2014, visit their website.

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