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I work in engineering, designing high voltage systems (up to 10kV) with lethal energy behind the voltage. We also work on exposed mains. The company has a spot audit soon, so they have thrusted 20 pages of safety documents in front of myself and my colleagues. They are also doing a 'department clean-up' to make it appear like a safe working environment.

I've never seen these documents before in my several years there, and I've never signed anything other than my initial contract and 6-month probation forms, nothing else. Nor have I had any training on anything, and have just kind of 'worked it out' over the years. I have been shocked several times, and so have my peers.

I have a couple of questions about these forms. They state things such as 'if working on HV systems, the employee shall be qualified or trained' for example - I asked a senior who said because I have a degree I am therefore qualified to work on for example live systems which does not make sense to me? I never touched or worked on mains live or HV electrical systems at University, it was mostly academic study.

Secondly, these forms have weird requirements. For example, using a soldering iron, it says we must wear gloves, eye protection, and protective footwear. In a case like this, if an accident was to occur and I wasn't wearing the correct footwear, could the company say they are not liable because I signed a form and didn't follow their protocol? There are lots of forms that have odd things like this, like requiring full PPE when using screwdrivers. Is it reasonable for the company to make us sign forms regarding PPE?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Aug 6 at 3:27
  • Some critical info from the comments worth saving: OP: "UK based company." "... many dangerous jobs I've done thinking to myself this is unbelievably dangerous, I shouldn't be doing this without training. But [no] electrical peers have said anything [but one could be a whistleblower!-WHO] [...] if I refuse/cause a problem I will probably be fired [?]" Especially if safety isn't improving a lot: report a safety issue as a whistleblower. Use an alias or remain anonymous if at all possible; don't trust the gov't. The FDA outed Pfizer whistleblower Brook Jackson and she was fired within HOURS. Aug 7 at 23:27
  • Do you have a person officially responsible for safety in the company? Do you have a union rep?
    – RedSonja
    Aug 10 at 11:34

4 Answers 4

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I agree with other posters.

Your company appears to be desperately trying to cover up some massively unsafe working practices. They are the important things. Your signing papers is secondary.

Having a university degree absolutely does not qualify you to work with high voltage systems. Your "senior" is a dangerous idiot for saying it does, and the company is almost certainly breaking the law by doing so. When I worked in the UK nuclear industry a trained and qualified electrician was required to change a plug. Scientists were not allowed to do it, despite their nuclear physics PhD. (Some would say especially those who had a nuclear physics PhD.)

What the company is trying to do is to make you read and sign a big set of safety instructions, seemingly without caring if you understand them. If an accident subsequently happens and you are not following what is said in the documents, they will say "the employee was informed of the relevant safety standards and chose to disregard them and the accident is therefore their fault.". This is unfortunately a valid defense and may not only absolve the company from prosecution and lawsuits, but may deny you compensation in the event of accidents.

I have some recommendations:

  1. If the documents have a "signed date" in the past or in any way convey the impression that they are retroactive, absolutely 100% do not sign them. Keep them as possible evidence.
  2. If you are in a professional engineering association such as the Institution of Electrical Engineers talk to them immediately. If you are in another union or professional association, talk to them.
  3. Talk to your colleagues and see if they feel the same way.
  4. Read the documents very carefully and write down all the precautions the documents require where your company has not been following them, and anything else they have not been following.
  5. Go to your managers and say that you don't understand the implications of the documents, and you want some training to explain exactly what they mean. Refuse to sign until you have had that training. You want the training conducted by qualified individuals. I would strongly suggest you ask for someone outside your company.
  6. Definitely do not sign the documents until you are sure you understand them fully.
  7. If you found things where your company has not been following the safety requirements, tell the company about them. Refuse any future tasks where the rules (as you understand them from the documents) are not followed. Do this even if you don't sign the documents. UK law prevents you from being penalized for refusing to work in an unsafe environment.
  8. Google the UK safety requirements for working on high voltage systems. I don't know the details, but I guarantee your degree does not make you qualified. Tell your "senior" this.
  9. Talk to the Health and Safety Executive or an outside organisation that handles workplace safety. However be aware that once you tell them of an unsafe working practice they may be obliged to take action, which may mean serious consequences for your company.

I should say that the other precautions you list to make sense. Requiring protection for a soldering iron is absolutely the right thing.

Absolutely if you sign these documents (or even if you don't) then refuse to do any work where the standards laid down in them are not followed. If you do any such work, and an accident happens, it will be considered your fault, whatever management said to you.

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    Also, make sure you keep a copy of all of these documents, plus any written questions/objections that you bring to management. A shady company might try to pass inspection by finding a contrived reason to fire all the employees that refused to sign the required paperwork. Your copies of these things would be "exhibit A" in a slam-dunk case for illegal termination.
    – bta
    Aug 5 at 1:51
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    What about also starting to look for another job? Aug 5 at 3:08
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    "Your senior is a dangerous idiot for saying it does" - absolutely correct! It's appalling that a senior would think it appropriate to say something so blatantly dangerous and untrue. They are extremely ignorant, or trying to rush through the paperwork in a wildly unsafe manner, or both.
    – jla
    Aug 5 at 3:14
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    "If you are in a union or professional association, talk to them." Exactly. Regardless of all the other benefits of being a union member, worker safety is one of the areas that unions really excels in.
    – hlovdal
    Aug 5 at 8:16
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    Definetly do not sign backdated or untrue documents before an audit. If the audit finds out about them, you'll be in just as huge legal trouble as the entire company.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 5 at 13:55
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Your company is playing catch-up, you should play too

Take these forms as a new way of doing business, that frankly should've been happening all along. Of course they can force you to follow whatever procedures they set. It's fairly clear that you aren't qualified to work on energized systems, since you & everyone else keeps getting bit. While this can be a badge of honor among electrical workers, in high voltage systems it's a path to the hospital or worse.

If the forms say there are PPE requirements, then yes, you are expected to wear them. If they say you should be qualified then you should refuse to enter live systems until you are properly trained (you should do this anyway). Failure to conform to either of these requirements would be firable offenses in plants where I worked. Clearly a EE degree doens't qualify you to work on live equipment and certainly not 10KV euqipment; you should consider yourself lucky you're still alive.

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    "If the forms say there are PPE requirements" then the company must provide its employees with PPE that meets the requirements.
    – uɐɪ
    Aug 5 at 9:45
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    If the documents are for the future, this is a correct answer. BUT: if any documents refers to the past, i.e. it's backdated, it states something happened in a way it didn't happen, etc., or states anything untrue (e.g. about your qualifications), then ABSOLUTELY DO NOT SIGN IT. Follow @DJClayworth's answer. If the audit finds out about the fabricated documents, you will be in just as huge legal trouble as the entire company will be!
    – Neinstein
    Aug 5 at 13:52
  • Great title and first sentence. Aug 7 at 23:35
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    People should not make light of getting zapped. I have a neighbour who got a shock while working as an electrician and following all guidelines. He spent weeks in hospital and hasn't been able to do active work since. His heart is wrecked. he is 24 years old. Fortunately this is Germany so he is not starving.
    – RedSonja
    Aug 10 at 11:39
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As an auditor, let me give you a little insight into what the auditors are expecting and what management is doing.

Yes, it is reasonable for your company to ask you to sign PPE documents.

Generally, a company is expected to set policies or procedures which outline work requirements. Your management should have given you these policies when you started. In an industrial setting, that includes policies outlining PPE requirements for a variety of situations.

Policies are good, but they don't help unless employees read them. One common way to show that the policies don't just sit on a shelf is to require employees to acknowledge them. Usually this is done electronically, but in the old days it was done with paper.

No, your documents probably aren't reasonable.

It sounds like your team didn't already have PPE policies in place. That's bad news for you. Thanks to the audit, it's bad news for management too. They are trying to shore up all the documentation they can to show that they are doing a good job.

There are two problems with the situation you describe. You noted both, but I'll reframe them from the auditors perspective:

  • The documents misrepresent the state of safety in your workplace. PPE policies are good. Policies today don't make the past safer. The audit will likely review a certain time period in the past. The documents should have a space to indicate on what date they were signed. If they don't, they may be used to falsely claim that these safety policies were in place when they weren't.
  • The policies may not make much sense. If they are truly non-sense, then odds are your managers won't enforce them. But this creates a lot of problems for you. If you are a good employee and follow the policy, you are going to have a hard time. If you ignore them, you have an axe over your head: any time management doesn't like you, they can use this as ammunition.

What can you do?

You can't change management. You can control your signature, and who you tell about this.

If you sign make sure to indicate the date of your signature. If it doesn't have a space for the date (which is suspicious by itself) write in the date next to your signature.

You can refuse to sign. There will almost certainly be consequences, but you may be better off leaving anyway.

You can, and should, tell people about this. Consider talking to the auditors if you have the chance. They should be equipped to handle whistleblower complaints. This does create some risk for yourself, but doing the right thing often does.

Check the ethical guidelines of your professional (whether that be a union, professional association, or some other group). You may have other responsibilities that I can't anticipate.

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Ultimately, if you're uncomfortable with signing something, then don't sign it. Know that the risk is that you may be disciplined or terminated if you don't sign them.

It may be best to ask your manager for clarification first, though.

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    "It may be best to ask your manager for clarification first, though": keeping in mind that your manager's priority is to protect the company's interests, not yours. Interpret whatever your manager says with that in mind, and consider finding someone to represent your own interests, such as a union, an occupational safety organization, or a lawyer.
    – phoog
    Aug 5 at 9:46
  • In the case of safety, the managers duty is to safety first, company second.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 5 at 10:57
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    @gnasher729 is supposed to be to safety first. Whether they're actually expected to have those priorities may vary, and in this case it seems very clear that the manager has been putting the company ahead of safety
    – Tristan
    Aug 5 at 14:25
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    @gnasher729 No, every manager's duty is company first (usually company profits). Some companies think safety will improve their profits, but don't fool yourself into thinking safety will never be sacrificed if it hurts profits.
    – user253751
    Aug 5 at 18:04
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    @o0'. I was originally planning to write "your manager's job..." rather than "...priority..." I don't remember precisely why I changed it. In any event, my point is that the manager has a legal duty to the employer to put the company's interests above those of a supervisee when the interests are in conflict. Therefore, employees should be wary of trusting managers when there is a conflict of interest. Whether the manager's own interests conflict with those of the company is another matter, as is the impact of the manager's self interest on the supervisee's trust.
    – phoog
    Aug 7 at 21:36

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