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Posted by Steven Johnson

Can Colorblind People Work in the Electrical Field?

March 7, 2024

It took me 18 years to learn that I was red-green colorblind. Until someone tells you what you see isn't completely accurate, you just kind of figure that it is. Looking back there were definite signs I ignored.Asking someone to grab a blue item that was purple or brown that was red brushing off their confusion with a “oh you know what I’m talking about.” I would often help my father with his business during the summers where he would recondition, paint, and touch-up cars. Sadly, my paint matches were never good enough (I always thought he was just being ridiculous because those matches looked spot on to me). Despite signs popping up everywhere, until someone explicitly told me what I saw was lacking, the thought never crossed my mind.

My plan after high school was always to join the military. Males in my family had historically served so I felt a form of obligation to do the same. The military also seemed like a great way to learn a trade and get some experience under my belt; younger me also desperately needed some structure and a couple reality checks. After completing most of the entrance exams and physicals, there was one test left: the Ishihara test.

color test Many people know this test as the “dot” colorblindness test, and I think I must have been the first person to fail for this test administrator because he seemed very confused, then sort of elated that I was colorblind; like I was some mythical creature sitting across from him. I was in disbelief, so he offered a secondary test where a lantern would flash a sequence of red, green, or white LEDs, and I would have to simply relay which lights were on. I failed that one pretty spectacularly as well.

It may seem like an inconsequential diagnosis, I mean I had made it this far in my life without even knowing, so how could this affect my life that much? But I was deemed ineligible for the electrician job I had previously signed up for. I returned home to contemplate if this was even what I wanted to do with my life now. The list of available jobs I could pick from went from whatever you want, to a very small list of jobs which did not intrigue me in the least. I spoke again with my recruiter; he told me about a job that did not require normal color vision and that required a top-secret clearance that still had some loose ties with the electrical world. color test (3)I mean come on; top-secret clearance sounds like some real James Bond type stuff to an 18-year-old. Now I am not sure if he didn’t really know much about the job because it was top-secret, or if he was just straight lying to me, but there definitely appeared to be a fair amount of embellishment on his part after I arrived at my training.

The job I was now training for was that of an Electronic Signals Exploitation Analyst, or specialty code 1N5X1. Shortly after arriving I realized the majority of the trainees here were also colorblind, surprising considering only 4.5% of the world's population is. We quickly found ourselves inundated with questions from the normal vision trainees that we had not heard before, but would hear the rest of our lives, “what color do you see this as?”, “can you see this color?”, “what does this look like to you?” Despite my life plan being altered by color vision, my time in the military was invaluable to me. It taught me many skills and lessons I use today, even though much of the job did not directly correlate to what I am doing today, other than some high-level electrical theory.

If anyone out there is colorblind with an interest in the electrical world, I would absolutely say that you can find something you would enjoy with electrical engineering, and that colorblindness will have a minimal to non-existent impact. Don’t get me wrong, there are things I found practically impossible. Forget about trying to read resistor color bands or differentiate the strands of a standard 50 pair cable. But if designing or surveying current equipment sounds interesting, colorblindness is less of a factor. I do arc flash and coordination power studies for electrical systems at Hallam-ICS. For me, the only colors I really deal with are the wiring codes for 480-volt systems (brown, orange, and yellow) and 208-volt systems (black, red, and blue), as well as ground (green) and neutral (white or grey). It may sound like an issue being red-green colorblind to have a 208-volt panel that has wires wrapped with red and green markings. However, I have found that the hues used have never been an issue for me and the green is neutral which is generally easy to identify (I usually don’t trust these markings anyway as we follow the system from the top-down and know what is supposed to be there). Worst case, odds are in your favor that a normal color vision person is working alongside you.

Are there any advantages to being colorblind? I can site one specific example at my company over the past year that may be easy to overlook. Companies want their product to be accessible to everyone. The company I work for now, Hallam-ICS, has graphs in our reports with colors I could not easily differentiate in their digital versions. Not a huge deal when I first started because the color difference was not an issue once we printed our reports. However, as we move towards most of our reports being digital, the need to have these reports normal color vision and colorblind vision friendly has grown. The ability to provide this perspective could be a great asset for your company to ensure your product does not inadvertently have ambiguous or confusing material for some (keep in mind a large portion of colorblind people don’t know that they are). Along with that, studies have shown that colorblind individuals have markedly better night vision, ability to see things in camouflage, and immunity to some marketing and advertising schemes (maybe we can save a couple dollars).

It was not the easiest road or the one I had originally planned, but I am happy with where it has taken me. I work for a fantastic company doing something I genuinely enjoy despite hitting a few detours along the way. If you are colorblind and have interest in the electrical field, don’t let it stop you. There are plenty of opportunities and the support is only getting better every year.

About the Author

Before coming to Hallam-ICS in 2022, Steven spent 8 years in the Air Force analyzing radio waves for threat emitters for tracking and exploitation efforts for things such as surface-to-air missile systems, aircraft, ships, and subs. He enjoys playing competitive paintball around the country and spending time with his family.

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About Hallam-ICS

Hallam-ICS is an engineering and automation company that designs MEP systems for facilities and plants, engineers control and automation solutions, and ensures safety and regulatory compliance through arc flash studies, commissioning, and validation. Our offices are located in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont and North Carolina  Texas, Florida and our projects take us world-wide.

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Topics: Arc Flash and Electrical Safety

Steven Johnson

By Steven Johnson March 7, 2024

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