On Aug. 24, 2011, Brandon Schroeder took a shortcut. An electrician with 19 years of experience, Shroeder was performing what he called a simple task: relocating a temporary power feed.
The issue with this task was there was no main breaker. So, the only way to disconnect the power was to call the utility company. With only a half hour of work left, Shroeder had two choices: work on an energized unit and take the risk, or follow through and have the power shut off first. He was not wearing his arc flash suit, which he had let a co-worker borrow.
The decision to work on the energized unit resulted in an arc flash explosion that severely burned Shroeder and nearly cost him his life. If he had been wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), his injuries would have been less severe. Shroeder was severely burned over 16 percent of his body and spent months recovering.
At that moment, Shroeder became one of 2,000 individuals that are hospitalized each year because of arc flash injuries. Of those 2,000, 400 will not survive due to the extent of their burns, or, in many cases, subsequent infections.
“All kinds of human performance leads us to make decisions that lead to undesirable results,” says Wesley Wheeler, safety director, National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).
Because many of these arc flash incidents are attributed to improperly working on energized units, it is crucial for workers to wear the proper PPE and for EHS managers to communicate the consequences of taking shortcuts, the importance of de-energizing as well as any upcoming regulatory changes to ensure worker safety.
Protecting from Head to Toe
Arc flash clothing significantly has changed in the past three to five years. New fabrics allow for greater worker comfort and are more fashion forward. In addition, synthetic blends allow for what’s most important: better protection.
“With arc flash, clothing can mean the difference between life, death and severe injury,” says Scott Francis, regional market manager, Westex by Milliken.
There are two crucial characteristics that PPE for electrical work must have.
1. Flame resistance: It should be able to self-extinguish on day 1 and 1001, Francis says. In other words, it should be durable for multiple washes, or at least 25, according to the ATSM F1506 standard. Generally, non-quality, cheaper PPE will survive the minimum-required washes, while more expensive, better-engineered clothing lasts through multiple industrial cycles, he says. Lastly, all arc-flash-rated clothing is flame-resistant, but flame-resistant rated clothing is not necessarily arc rated.
2. Insulation: The arc rating of the clothing should not exceed the amount of electrical energy potentially produced. Proper clothing should protect against second-degree burns.
There are three steps to a successful FR clothing program: Identify the hazard; perform the risk assessment and specify the most effective fabric need to protect your workers.
After an arc flash accident, the survival rate of second- and third-degree burns depends on severity as well as age. More severe burns are “open pathways” to infection, Francis says.
“You can’t do something about your age, but you can do something about your clothing,” he says.
Communicating Is Key
The relationship between an employer and worker is intertwined, with each sharing certain responsibilities when it comes to arc flash protection, Wheeler says.
Employers must provide safety-related work practices and train the employee. It is up to the worker to implement and abide by the safety-related work practices every day. Article 105 of NFPA 70E details this process.
“We need to understand and communicate what those responsibilities are,” he says. “Employees have a responsibility to themselves, their family and their employer. Employees have a responsibility to their employer.”
Changes to NFPA 70E, which will take effect in 2018, became available on the organization’s website on Sept. 25. Wheeler pinpoints the most pivotal updates which include:
Scope of standard – Added removal of equipment in the safe work practice scope
Arc flash hazard – Change from dangerous condition to source of possible injury
Electrical safety – Added focus to identifying hazards and reducing the risk
Shock hazard – Change from dangerous condition to source of possible injury
Application of safety-related work practices – hierarchy of risk controls: the first priority is to eliminate the hazard
Risk assessment – Added emphasis on the estimate of likelihood and severity
Job safety planning – New sub-section in 110.1 outlining job safety planning requirements
PPE – New section 130.7(C)(14) addresses conformity assessment and marking requirements
The problem with many arc flash accidents, Wheeler says, whether it is host employer and contractor or employer and worker, is that lack of communication could lead to an energized environment, and is an injury or fatality waiting to happen.
“When we start thinking about how it affects other people, that’s when it hits home for us,” he says.