An arc-flash accident is a relatively rare phenomenon, leading some electrical workers to believe that it won't happen to them – or that safety standards such as NFPA 70E don't apply to them.
But perhaps it isn't so rare. As many as 10 U.S. workers are killed or injured everyday in arc-flash accidents, according to the research firm Capshell Inc.
And the devastating consequences of an arc flash alone should make all electrical workers take notice.
An arc flash occurs when powerful, high-amperage currents travel, or arc, through the air. The intense heat and light emitted by an arc flash can cause severe, life-threatening burns that sometimes require skin grafts or amputations. The release of energy can create up to 1,000 pounds of pressure, potentially causing hearing loss or hurling victims into nearby objects.
"On the whole, the industrial work environment has come a long way in understanding electrical hazards and protecting employees," said Joe Liberti, protective apparel regional director for Cintas Corp. "However, certain myths still exist about arc-flash protection, and it's critical that these are addressed in order to maximize employee safety and minimize liability in the workplace."
According to Cintas, there are four common misconceptions about NFPA 70E, the Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace created by the National Fire Protection Association. They are:
- "NFPA 70E doesn't apply to me." A notorious phrase in the electrical industry, many electricians believe that because they have never seen or experienced an arc flash, it won't happen to them. While arc flashes are relatively rare, their unpredictable nature makes them particularly dangerous. According to a study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2,287 U.S. workers died and 32,807 U.S. workers sustained lost-time injuries due to electrical shock or burn injuries over a seven-year period starting in 1992. Consequently, when an individual is exposed to an arc flash, the results can be life-changing.
- "NFPA 70E is just product." Another common misconception among organizations is that employees are safe if they have the proper personal protective equipment. While flame-resistant apparel and other PPE are important, these items become useless if not used properly. For example, if employees roll up their sleeves while wearing flame-resistant shirts, their safety is compromised. As a result, a big part of NFPA 70E consists of training employees in the proper use and care of PPE. A Cintas rule of thumb for organizations interested in promoting safety and compliance is to view NFPA 70E as 10 percent product and 90 percent training.
- "If I buy a flame-resistant shirt or coverall, then I'm compliant." When an arc flash occurs, it fully engulfs a worker - 360 degrees. In order to reduce the severity of injury, workers need to don a full ensemble of flame-resistant apparel, including shirts, pants, gloves, face shields, balaclavas (sock hoods), safety glasses and shoes. NFPA 70E requires that organizations classify the work performed at their facility into one of five risk-hazard categories (0 to 4). Based on the amount of energy that individuals are exposed to per square centimeter, the appropriate apparel is selected to match the hazard so it won't break open in the event of a flash. It also is important for organizations to routinely maintain and inspect their PPE.
- "Every time an NFPA 70E flame-resistant garment is laundered, it becomes less flame-resistant." If flame-resistant apparel is washed properly, it does not lose its integrity. However, it's vital that employees wash their garments according to the instructions on their care labels and those outlined by NFPA 70E. It also is essential that flame-resistant apparel is constructed and repaired using flame-resistant thread, which is seldom found in retail stores. To limit liabilities, many organizations opt to work with industrial launderers who can inspect, launder, repair and replace garments if necessary.
"Equally important to understanding the electrical hazards in your workplace is revisiting your PPE program each time the NFPA 70E standard is rewritten," Liberti added. "This ensures that your employees are being protected to the best of your organization's ability and that your program is still compliant."