Generators can be indispensable for providing remote power to operate tools, lights, etc. on construction sites. And overall, they are a relatively safe means to that end. Yet, like any equipment, they can present safety concerns if used improperly.
Safe operation of any generator begins by reading the operator’s manual. The manufacturer is the undisputed expert on the equipment, and companies typically employ a host of personnel to evaluate codes, standards and best practices for its generator models. After becoming well-informed, it’s still important to be aware of the primary hazards associated with generator use so you can then help ensure the safety of your customers.
Generators produce electricity, so be as careful with them as you would with any piece of electrical equipment. The electricity provided by a generator is exactly the same as that supplied by normal utilities and carries with it the same hazards for shock and electrocution.
Advise customers to exercise extreme caution when operation in wet conditions, such as when it’s raining or snowing, and don’t ever set the unit in water. They need to keep power cord connection points off the job surface (grass, mud, etc). Warn them to start or stop the generator only when no electrical loads are connected, and to avoid overloading the generator by trying to operate more equipment than its output rating allows.
Visually inspect cords. Make sure wires aren’t damaged or crossed and check to ensure they’re adequately insulated. Since overloaded cords can cause fires or equipment damage, check and point out the cord ratings to customers so they won’t overload them by trying to draw more power than they’re rated to handle. It’s a good idea to restrict cord lengths to 50 feet or 100 feet maximum. Instruct customers to avoid laying cords in high-traffic areas, and use cord ramps to protect them. They should always assume wires are energized or could become energized.
Operators run the risk of electrocution if a generator isn’t properly grounded. Grounding can be accomplished by driving a copper rod with a wire from the rod to the generator. The wire is then attached to a ground point on the machine. Some generators use an internally grounded neutral to the frame to ensure performance and personal protection. If in doubt, contact the manufacturer or dealer for help.
When selecting a generator, consider the available safety features. Many provide GFCI protection and covered outlets to minimize electrocution hazards. Some also feature additional guards, 110% fluid containment and emergency shutdown buttons and systems.
Carbon monoxide, the silent killer
Because a generator uses a combustion engine, it gives off large amounts of carbon monoxide. This gas is dangerous because it’s colorless and odorless, making it very difficult to detect. As a result, it’s very important to ensure your generators are properly ventilated.
The easiest way to ensure proper ventilation is let customers know they should never run the generator indoors or in an enclosed space of any kind, including garages, basements or crawl spaces. A well-ventilated room will not prevent the buildup of toxic gas. Also, when mounted outdoors they should be placed away from openable windows and doors, as even prevailing winds can blow engine exhaust through the openings. In addition, a generator should always be placed with 3 to 4 feet of clearance on all sides. This allows for air movement around the generator and helps increase ventilation and prevent carbon monoxide buildup.
Beware of fire hazards
Under normal operating conditions, generators become quite hot, which increases the risk of fire while refueling. To prevent a fire, make sure customers know the generator must always be turned off and allowed to cool down completely before refueling.
Pouring a flammable liquid on hot engine parts can cause the fuel to ignite. Although refueling a generator while it’s still warm — or worse, while it’s still running — might save a bit of time, it could wind up putting people in life-threatening situations.