Arc Flash Safety: Helping Companies Keep Workers Protected from one of the Most Dangerous Electrical Safety Hazards

By Kevin Pietras, Director of Offering Management, Honeywell Electrical Safety

One of the most dangerous and pervasive electrical safety issues (arc flashes) occur when electrical current passes between two or more conducting surfaces or from conductors to the ground. Far from being a harmless spark, 76,000 workers each year1 are disabled because of serious shock and burn injuries caused by arc flashes.

Arc flashes can have several causes, such as gaps in insulation, corrosion, condensation, dust or other impurities on a conducting surface. Take for example the case of Graeme Edwards2, a unit controller with more than 30 years of experience who was reinstalling a high-voltage circuit breaker at an Australian power station. Edwards knew it was a potentially hazardous – though routine – procedure, so he did the work during a planned outage. Despite the outage, the electricity short circuited through a cable that was too long, causing an explosion, and leading to Edwards’ death. In this situation, a trained professional passed away, leaving behind grieving family and coworkers. As shown here, arc flashes are hard to predict and difficult to prevent against. But as with many workplace safety issues, the first step to preventing serious injury is awareness, education, and having the right protective equipment.

With so much industrial and consumer equipment today relying on power-hungry electrical devices, it’s more important than ever to understand the full impact of arc flashes – including safety hazards and the human and financial costs.

The Main Hazards of Arc Flashes

Electrical hazards are an all-too-common source of injury. In fact, electrical safety accidents perpetually rank as a leading cause3 of workplace deaths. Arc flashes present a significant danger and regularly cause serious injury, as electrical arcing produces temperatures as high as 35,000°F – hotter than the surface of the sun’s temperature of 9,941°F. So even if the victim doesn’t touch anything, he or she can be fatally injured – especially when you consider that burns can occur over a distance of 10 feet.

Burns pose a significant danger. As much as 80% of electrical injuries are burns resulting4 from an arc flash and aftereffects, such as ignition of flammable clothing. Arcs typically release five to 30 calories. Exposure to just one to two calories causes second-degree burns. In 0.1 seconds, a worker can get a third-degree burn. And the odds of someone surviving a burn decrease as age increases.

There are other debilitating effects. Hearing loss, eye injury, skin damage from blasts of molten metal, lung damage, and blast injury can all occur from an arc flash. The biggest factors in helping keep workers safe from arc flashes is awareness, education, and companies choosing and maintaining the proper protective equipment.

Take Steps to Prevent Electrical Injuries

Prevention costs less than noncompliance. The Wisconsin Safety Council estimates that for every dollar spent on training, three dollars are saved on injury costs. In one survey5 of arc flash injury victims conducted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, 94% of respondents believed that the incident could have been prevented. In fact, the prevention method most often referred to was simply “turn the power off.”

As with any sort of safety process, the best way to cope with a danger is to avoid the situation and stay out of harm’s way. But when that is impossible, companies should minimize the risk and help ensure their employees who do put themselves at risk are protected. To prevent workplace electrocutions:

  • Train workers in electrical safety
  • Implement and follow safe work procedures including wearing properly rated arc flash personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Follow corresponding OSHA, NEC, or NESC requirements
  • Implement and follow OSHA’s Lockout and Tagout (LO/TO) procedures, found here6

Training is more than an occasional talk. Improve safety training and risk awareness across the organization — and not just because OSHA requires it. For safety managers, responsibilities include raising employees’ awareness of their actions and the possible results. Employees must understand the consequences of any missed protocol and understand why they should follow proper safety procedures at all times (even when nobody’s looking).

Among the best guidelines to follow:

  • Ensure your company has a written safety program that identifies risks, sets boundaries, and establishes the PPE needed to protect workers from arc flashes and other electrical hazards
  • Document the electrical regulations and work processes
  • Provide the training and tools to ensure they are understood and consistently enforced

PPE Helps Manage Arc Flash Risk

When an arc flash event occurs, it is caused by a short circuit condition where electricity travels outside of its planned path. The temperature of an arc flash can reach over three times hotter than the sun. This means workers in potential arc flash environments, such as those who operate on electrical panels in buildings, need specialized PPE to prevent them from experiencing substantial consequences.

Arc flash PPE requires head-to-toe solutions. When workers don their PPE ahead of entering an environment with the potential for an arc flash, they need to be wearing protective garments like coats, overpants, and coveralls made with arc flash resistant materials. Head, face, and neck protection is critical too. Arc flash hoods are designed to cover the head, face, and neck to protect against extreme temperatures. When considering the right face shield to use, workers should opt for selections that ensure reliable visibility even in poorly lit rooms and anti-fog and anti-scratch coatings to guarantee lens longevity.

Quite simply, no worker should get near electrical equipment without wearing the right PPE chosen by their employer. It’s obvious that electrical hazards are unpredictable. A worker cannot know if the workspace had a water leak, or if the wind will whip the wires to a place where they shouldn’t be. The consequences of a “minor” misjudgment are not minor when it comes to electrical power.

PPE is considered the last line of defense, after all the other steps have been taken in a safety plan. Don’t treat PPE as an invincibility shield, as electrical hazards are frighteningly powerful. Everybody who gets near an industrial power plug should wear the appropriate gear. “Appropriate” is important; make sure workers have the exact PPE needed for every application.

Luckily, PPE that protects against arc flashes has come a long way – from heavy, non-breathable garments to comfortable and lightweight moisture-wicking fabric. Having modern, comfortable PPE encourages personnel to wear them more readily. After all, if employees don’t wear them, they can’t be protected. In addition, eye protection now features clear lenses that allow a full field of vision while protecting against arc flashes. This evolution of PPE allows users to adapt to wearing PPE more readily.

Hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries occur7 each year due to electric shock, electrocution, and arc flash. But almost all these tragic events are preventable. A clear understanding of the dangers involved is vital to worker safety. So is a culture-driven adherence to well-vetted and correctly executed processes and procedures. PPE is the last line of defense and is crucial in the safety process, enabling organizations to protect their employees and avoid costly – and tragic – mistakes. ESW



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