Using Portable Generators Safely

Portable generators are internal combustion engines used to generate electricity. They are useful for construction workers when temporary or remote power is needed, and are commonly used during cleanup and recovery efforts following disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. There are, however, specific hazards associated with generators, including carbon monoxide poisoning, fires, electrocution and vibration hazards.

Shock and Electrocution

The electricity created by generators has some additional hazards because generator users often bypass the safety devices (such as circuit breakers) that are built into electrical systems. The following precautions are provided to reduce shock and electrocution hazards:

  • Never attach a generator directly to the electrical system of a structure unless a qualified electrician has properly installed the generator with a transfer switch. Attaching a generator directly to a building electrical system without a properly installed transfer switch can energize wiring systems for great distances. This creates a risk of electrocution for utility workers and others in the area.
  • Always plug electrical appliances directly into the generator using the manufacturer’s supplied cords or extension cords that are grounded (3-pronged). Inspect the cords to make sure they are fully intact and not damaged, cut or abraded. Do not use underrated cords—replace them with appropriately rated cords that use heavier gauge wires. Do not overload a generator; this can lead to overheating which can create a fire hazard.
  • Use ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), especially where electrical equipment is used in or around wet or damp locations. GFCIs shut off power when an electrical current is detected outside normal paths. Regardless of GFCI use, electrical equipment used in wet and damp locations must be listed and approved for those conditions.
  • Make sure a generator is properly grounded and the grounding connections are tight.
  • Keep a generator dry; do not use it in the rain or wet conditions. If needed, protect a generator with a canopy. Never manipulate a generator’s electrical components if you are wet or standing in water.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, toxic gas. Many people have died from CO poisoning because their generator was not adequately ventilated.

  • Never use a generator indoors or in enclosed spaces. Open windows and doors may NOT prevent CO from building up when a generator is located in an enclosed space.
  • Make sure a generator has 3 to 4 feet of clear space on all sides and above it to ensure adequate ventilation.
  • Do not use a generator outdoors if its placement near doors, windows, and vents could allow CO to enter and build up in occupied spaces.
  • If you or others show symptoms of CO poisoning— dizziness, headaches, nausea, tiredness—get to fresh air immediately and seek medical attention. Do not re-enter the area until it is determined to be safe by trained and properly equipped personnel.

Fire Hazards

  • Generators become hot while running and remain hot for long periods after they are stopped. Generator fuels (gasoline, kerosene, etc.) can ignite when spilled on hot engine parts.
  • Before refueling, shut down the generator and allow it to cool.
  • Gasoline and other generator fuels should be stored and transported in approved containers that are properly designed and marked for their contents, and vented.
  • Keep fuel containers away from flame producing and heat generating devices (such as the generator itself, water heaters, cigarettes, lighters, and matches). Do not smoke around fuel containers. Escaping vapors or vapors from spilled materials can travel long distances to ignition sources.

For more safety information, contact our offices at Diversified Safety Services.

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Nina McGinley

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