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I am partly responsible for the maintenance of some arcade machines. My official title is "Arcade Attendant", but I can act as a technician. These arcade machines are in an extremely high traffic area. We are a contractor at a larger location.

The machines give electric shocks to people when touched. That's right, the outside of the machines will ground electricity through people when their feet are wet. There are support engineers available, however, my boss told me that "we own the company that the support engineers work for ..." (or something thereabouts) and he is, therefore, "afraid" to call them.

We have had some trouble duplicating the problem (it seems to require wet, heavily used shoes), but this is still an issue because some people are, for medical reasons, extra sensitive to electric shocks.

Furthermore, the level of potential exposure is a nightmare scenario. These machines are located at a theme park with potentially tens of thousands of visitors each day. They are also located just under awnings, the sort of place people might huddle for shelter if it were raining....

My boss is hiring a woman he knows to have implants and therefore should not be electrically shocked. He is dictating that she is not to touch the machines. When I brought up the fact that the public can still do the same he changed the subject.

I have two years of engineering school under my belt, but by no means am I an electrical engineer or an engineer period. A solo attempt to analyze the problem would be overtly noticeable as I would expect it to take hours.

What are the pros and cons of my options?

My options seem to be:

  • Confront my boss. Demand he allows me to address it (contact engineering) or he can fire me.
  • Try to fix it surreptitiously.
  • Try to report a safety issue to the theme park we rent space from (their left hand doesn't know what their right hand is doing.)
  • Report it to our own company's regional manager (who may or may not take the same attitude.)
  • Informing OSHA or some such authority.

closed as off-topic by gnat, Xavier J, Michael Grubey, Mister Positive, paparazzo May 5 '17 at 21:38

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  • 74
    Fixing this doesn't call for an electrical engineer. It calls for an electrician. – Pete Becker May 4 '17 at 22:11
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    Agreeing with @PeteBecker - I'll bet the problem is much more with the power provided by the venue than with your machines. A good journeyman electrician will probably find a really old, insufficient and corroded ground stake, fix it, and put in a GFI breaker. – Wesley Long May 4 '17 at 23:19
  • 12
    Are you sure this is bona-fide ground fault type shocking, and not merely harmless static electricity of the kind you get from shuffling feet across carpet? Is there anything less than optimum about the flexible cords used to connect the machines to the wall/building? It should be ridiculously easy to detect: measure voltage between a screw on the machine's chassis to anything metal on a reliably grounded receptacle or conduit. Also consider the machines might be properly grounded, and something else is raising the voltage of earth in that vicinity. That does happen. – Harper May 5 '17 at 6:24
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S May 6 '17 at 10:19
107

You seem to have your options pretty well covered.

In any chain of command, when you don't get satisfaction, you move up. It seems to me that's what you need to do. Don't demand anything though. If your regional boss doesn't help then perhaps the theme park should know. If nothing still changes, perhaps you should tell OSHA. I don't characterize it as "crying" however. You're talking about safety.

What you should not do is fix it without approval. When you do that, you've just taken sole responsibility for that repair. Your job is to represent the company. If the company won't fix it then you should either report it and/or move on.

  • 83
    And make sure you keep good notes of who you informed and when. If their inaction results in legal trouble for the company, you don't want your bosses making you the scapegoat that "knew about the problem and never told anyone". Protect yourself. – Seth R May 4 '17 at 22:46
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    Disagree with the last, lots of serious accidents have their roots in a person observing an emergent problem and fiddling and diddling with the chain of command while time critically ticks... instead of simply and directly acting. Just off the top of my head, Eschede. Put it this way, how do you plan to explain to a jury why you didn't just unplug the machines while your warning goes up the chain of command? – Harper May 5 '17 at 6:36
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    @Harper ...probably because he doesn't have permission to unplug the machines, and the issue doesn't appear to be critical except for edge cases. You can't "simply act" in a multinational. That will get you fired and/or sued. Sice it's hard to reproduce, it's hard to justify your action when the firestorm comes, since it's not a case of "it was giving lethal shocks to anyone who touched it!". What he should do, though, is communicate to his manager, in writing, that he thinks the machines should be unplugged while he escalates. – xDaizu May 5 '17 at 7:44
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    @Harper Also — and keep in mind that this is coming from my experiences in the Navy, which is in a different boat than the problem the asker faces, — it can be twice as dangerous when someone takes hasty action to prevent a casualty but does not know how to actually establish safe conditions. Granted, these arcade consoles are not steam turbines or the like, but if you don't know how to operate or repair something, then you probably shouldn't mess with it on your own. Furthermore, making changes that are not documented creates the possibility for many more problems in future situations. – can-ned_food May 5 '17 at 8:25
  • @xDaizu My electrical experience here informs my viewpoint. Electricity travels in loops. There's no such thing as a ground fault that limits itself to a safe 20ma. The limiting factor is the other half of the loop: the path back to earth, which varies by conditions, soil, shoes, etc. This path is highly fickle and can be lethal for the next sole. (pun intended). – Harper May 5 '17 at 19:26
36

You are right in saying that this affects the public, but it is more than that - it also affects you as you are also subject to those same shocks. So this is clearly a workplace violation and you should inform OSHA asap as you have clearly tried to do the right thing, but have been ignored to date.

See Occupational Safety and Health Administration - Contact Us. If you are a part of a union you should also consult your union rep as well. (And even if you are not a part of a union, but there is a union on site it might be a good idea to consult with them as well)

It is your responsibility to remain vigilant in your workplace and ensure that all appropriate rules and laws are followed.

I know that this will put you at risk, but I would hope that you can tip off OSHA anonymously. Given that the public are subject to these shocks and that your boss has been informed and not done anything about it, then you can always play dumb and say it was obviously a member of the public who complained.

I agree with Christopher Estep that you should not fix this issue without approval and supervision.

And with respect to that new woman employee. Think of it like this, while the boss has dictated that she not touch these machines, accidents will occur - either it slips her mind, or she makes a mistake. If that happens and she is injured/dies OSHA will come down on your company like a ton of bricks. There will be a lot of blame to go around, and you don't want to be the one saying "Well I knew about it but didn't do anything about it"

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    If you do tip OSHA off anonymously, you should keep a personal record of it you can produce (e.g. use a dummy email and make sure to keep the credentials to log in handy). – IllusiveBrian May 5 '17 at 16:54
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As someone who is on track to being an engineer, you've just found a real world engineering problem Those without the technical know how are pretending a problem doesn't exist and thereby endangering a subset of the public (in this case those with pacemakers or the like). This is the sort of thing that gets covered in engineering ethics classes pretty extensively.

As you are not yet an engineer, you are not bound by professional ethics to resolve this situation beyond reporting it to the proper channels and trusting them to take the proper action. Once you are a P.Eng you'd be risking your license by approaching the issue in this way.

Even though you aren't bound by professional ethics this is a situation where personal ethics do factor in. I'd suggest pushing further as you'd have to live with your conscience should anyone be hurt and you only did the minimum to prevent it. Double check reporting procedures on safety hazards, if you have autonomy to report directly to support do so. If you are supposed to report to management then push upward to the regional manager.

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    I'd say the OP is ethically bound as a person to deal with this. You don't need an engineering degree to report the truth when you discover someone's wilfully emplacing others at risk of potentially fatal electric shocks. One might also actually argue that there is a legal burden, since otherwise the OP could be considered an accomplice to manslaughter. – Lightness Races in Orbit May 4 '17 at 22:21
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    The OP is not ethically bound as an Engineer. The IEEE has a code of ethics that direct its members to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment - it's #1 on the list! Depending on what organizations the OP belongs to, and what the code of ethics the OP's company says (if it has one), the OP may be ethically bound (by a code of ethics) to do something about this. – Jay Elston May 5 '17 at 0:11
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    "Ethics" is a strong word with many different meanings. You two seems to be mixing personal ethics with professional ethics. Irregardless - ignoring this goes against OP's personal ethics, so being registered or not is a red herring. Its wrong, its unsafe, it can and should be fixed. Personally? I'd consider unplugging the units from the wall then snipping the power cable flush with the machine and slap an "unsafe to energise" sticker on the power cable egress. – Criggie May 5 '17 at 3:11
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    @Criggie considering it could literally save someone's life, I think you should post that apparent-but-not-actual-overreaction as an answer. It's at least worth mentioning the severity involved. Of course he might get some heat for it. But compare that to a bereaved family member wondering why, why, why no one took it upon themselves to disable a deadly piece of unmaintained equipment. – Wildcard May 5 '17 at 5:20
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    @Myles in Poland there is entry in penal code about "exposure to risk of loss of health or life" (not sure if it's best translation). It's the penal code - actual person is responsible, for example the one who powers up machines in the morning knowing they are a risk factor. TL;DR of our penal code is: you are personally responsible for your actions and neglect and you are forbidden to follow unlawful commands of your employer. – Mołot May 5 '17 at 14:47
-5

From a comment:

Ignoring this goes against OP's personal ethics, so being registered or not is a red herring. Its wrong, its unsafe, it can and should be fixed.

Personally? I'd consider unplugging the units from the wall then snipping the power cable flush with the machine and slap an "unsafe to energise" sticker on the power cable egress.

Edit Another less destructive option is to switch off the circuit that powers these devices and label it.

If you can't find one, make one. Here are some inspiration:

http://www.uksafetysigns.co.uk/images/electrical_signs.jpg

http://www.uk-pat.co.uk/articles-public/images/fail-pat-testing-sticker.gif

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/31ZAw7xZwnL._SX342_.jpg

  • 5
    I doubt that this is a good idea when you aren't certified to make that judgment. Even if this judgment is correct. When you aren't a qualified electrical engineer and you weren't ordered to check the machines for electrical safety, such an insubordination might cost you your job. Get a professional to do this. – Philipp May 5 '17 at 10:37
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    I understand where you are coming from; but as a low level employee it's hard to say he really has the power to do this. It is concerning that the risk level is somewhat unknown. At the same time; there is no guarantee that doing this will help the situation at all. Say OP were to take this advice, unplug the machines and put these signs up (let alone actually cutting the power cable, which he really shouldn't do if he doesn't know what he's doing anyways), what do you think his boss would say?... – JMac May 5 '17 at 11:21
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    ...I doubt it would be "thanks for removing part of our business after I told you this was a non-issue!" Odds are it would be closer to "you're fired". After which there is no guarantee that he wont just turn the machine right back on without doing any repair or investigation. It seems more reasonable that OP try to keep his job so that he is able to help deal with the problem instead of being put in a situation where he must deal with it from outside of the company. – JMac May 5 '17 at 11:23
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    OP does not have the right to damage the property of his employer. – Matthew Read May 5 '17 at 15:52
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    In summary you are suggesting destruction of property. That will get you fired and possibly sued. If they are willing to sacrifice their job then just quit and report them to OSHA and City. – paparazzo May 5 '17 at 21:36

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