Driving to work, deep in thought, pondering the reasons companies use Permanent Electrical Safety Devices (PESDs) in their electrical safety programs, I nearly slammed into the back of a bus stopped at a railroad crossing. With a pounding heart and a rush of adrenaline, it hit me like a freight train—both electrical energy and freight trains yield to no one. I finally stumbled across the perfect analogy for electrical safety principles.
During a blizzard in Sandy, Utah, on Dec. 1, 1938, a freight train named “The Flyin’ Ute” collided with a school bus driven by Farrold Silcox, killing 25 of the 39 students. Before this tragedy, in the 1920s, the use of buses became commonplace, and the public soon realized that a train colliding into a bus could be a disaster. Thus, laws governing vehicles at railroad crossings were passed and have remained unchanged today—original laws only required bus drivers stop at railroad crossings. Over time improvements were made requiring bus drivers to check their brakes when approaching a crossing, turn on flashers, come to a complete stop 15–50′ (4.6–15.2 m) from the tracks and look both ways before crossing the tracks.
Now for the rest of the story. … Farrold Silcox had no idea that The Flyin’ Ute was about to collide with his bus. The train was unseen because of the blizzard and an unmarked rail crossing. Plus, Farrold did not hear the train because of the bus’s windows and doors were closed. After this tragedy, the laws changed to give bus drivers better visibility of an oncoming train by requiring them to open the passenger door and driver side window and wait at all rail crossings.
In many ways this train story parallels the challenges of locking and tagging out unseen and unheard electrical energy because it poses the same risks—instantaneous death. Isolating electrical energy in Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) is considered the riskiest task performed daily.
A bus stopping at the rail crossing is like the first step of a LOTO procedure—identifying the source and opening an isolator.
Next step is to verify zero voltage. Interestingly, the minimum OSHA compliance for this task is a qualified worker with a voltmeter in hand donned in personal protection equipment—the mandatory three-point voltmeter test. This is like a bus driver stopping at a rail crossing not outfitted with flashing lights and a gate.
Installing PESDs into electrical equipment is akin to adding a gate and flashing light at a rail crossing—an added safety measure, adding extra insurance that unseen and unheard electrical energy is identified before it snatches lives.
Opening the passenger door and driver window, and checking both directions for a train is the final step bus drivers perform before crossing the tracks. Likewise, PESDs used in LOTO need procedures that bring everything together.
With millions of school buses on the road today, one rarely hears of train and bus collisions like what happened years ago in Sandy, Utah. Why? Both safety examples here have a common thread—each require multiple sequential failures occurring at the same time for an accident to happen.
For over a decade PESDs improved the safety record for thousands of companies deploying them in their electrical safety programs. In this case, a failure of the isolator, failure of the PESD device and the worker not performing the mandatory voltmeter test all must happen for an accident to occur.
Most likely, each of these safety scenarios will evolve, but one thing will never change—buses stopping at rail crossings and workers doing the mandatory voltmeter test, preferably (with PESDs reducing risk) in the presence of the energy verification provided by PESDs.