Arc flashes are a potentially life-threatening hazard for those who work in the electrical industry. These electrical explosions or discharges can reach upwards of 35,000 degrees in temperature, and while seemingly short-lived, they can result in catastrophic burn injuries. Updates in consensus standards and regulations, specifically NFPA 70E— the guidance standard for electrical safety—reinforce that eliminating job site hazards is the first priority. While this directive includes addressing arc flash hazards, not all arc flash hazard risk can be completely removed. Even the process of elimination, de-energizing a system, is considered energized work and requires the use of arc flash personal protective equipment (PPE).
Arc-rated (AR)/flame-resistant (FR) PPE is the last line of defense in the event of an unexpected arc flash. When worn properly, it can mitigate burn injuries by self-extinguishing when the thermal source is removed and provide insulation to reduce the probability of a second- or third-degree burn.
There are two main types of PPE clothing programs for NFPA 70E Category 1 and 2 situations: task-based PPE and daily wear. Task-based programs require workers to put on proper AR/FR apparel before performing a specific task, and then remove it once complete. Daily wear programs outfit employees in protective AR/FR clothing, such as shirt and pant uniforms with self-extinguishing and insulating fabric properties incorporated directly into the garment, throughout the day, every day.
When worn properly, both options can help protect workers in the event of an arc flash hazard. The following six benefits, however, present a compelling case why everyday AR/FR apparel can be a sound investment for companies.
1. Decreased risk of injury and human error
When deciding between a task-based and daily wear FR program, safety managers have to deeply consider the amount of risk they are willing to assume, and how that parlays into addressing human error per the 2018 edition of NFPA 70E.
In the latest edition of NFPA 70E, Article 110 states that employers and workers must account for human error in job site risk assessments, including task demands, work environment, individual capabilities and human nature. The updated language calls for electrical safety programs to define steps to reduce human error.
An AR/FR program can help prevent the catastrophic consequences of human error on the job, but not all programs do so equally. When comparing the risks between task-based and daily FR programs, the variation becomes all too clear.
Task-based programs require constant hazard assessment, presenting a high level of risk to maintain compliance and to ensure employee safety. In order to achieve compliance with task-based FR programs, an employee must take an extra step to don AR/FR clothing before performing specific tasks. Too many factors could come into play and may prevent them from doing so. Are they in a hurry? Do they have the PPE with them, and if not, will they take the time to get it? Will they take it off too soon before arc flash hazards are mitigated? Are colleagues also wearing AR/FR clothing? If not, it could influence someone to not wear theirs, too. Are they desensitized and too confident in their abilities to not realize an arc flash incident could happen to them? Or, was there human error in their hazard assessment, which led them to believe an arc flash hazard was not present for a certain task when it actually was?
Daily FR apparel, on the other hand, presents a simple and consistent solution to body arc flash hazard protection for lower energy Category 1 and Category 2 type tasks. Everyday FR apparel eliminates the question of if employees will be wearing FR apparel in the event of an arc flash incident. Instead, the risk is simply if employees are wearing AR/FR clothing properly: sleeves rolled down, shirt tucked and completely buttoned, and not layering non-FR clothing over top of FR apparel, for example.
2. Increased efficiency
Time is money, and every second on the job site counts. Daily FR programs eliminate the additional time required for employees to put on their task-based PPE, and even to debate if this specific task might require it. With clothing options that mirror the traditional work shirt and pants, putting on FR PPE is now the same as getting ready for one’s day. This means that employees save valuable time throughout the day, allowing them to be more productive.
3. Protection for both new and experienced employees
Everyday FR apparel ensures that employees of all tenure and experience levels have some level of AR/FR protection on the job. Whether inexperience or over-confidence results in an incorrect risk assessment, there is always a personal margin for error present with task-based PPE. Everyday FR apparel reduces the risk of individual decision-making, human error and desensitization by providing employees a base level of protection.
4. Lower long-term cost
Everyday FR apparel notably reduces employer risk and liability in the event of an arc flash hazard, and that results is lower long-term costs. While task-based FR programs may be less expensive upfront, they could cost exponentially more over time. The potential medical cost for a 50% body burn, for example, is estimated to be around $1,168,650. This doesn’t include additional penalties and fines from OSHA, which are $12,934 per serious OSHA violation.
5. Uniform appearance
Daily wear FR programs enable companies to implement a standard employee uniform that reinforces their corporate identity while providing required safety measures. Many daily wear FR programs can be designed to include brand colors and company logos, presenting a consistent professional appearance to customers. The result helps heighten not only your employee safety, but also your community reputation.
6. Safer work environments
Daily wear FR programs help to create a safer work environment for employees. At the end of the day, that is what is most important. When safety managers specify adequate protection against daily job site hazards, it is better for all parties—the company, the employees and their families. Daily wear FR programs help communicate that workplace safety is a priority within the company.
Scott Francis is the technical sales manager for Westex by Milliken. Involved in the safety industry since 1991, he has extensive experience with protective apparel fabrics, as well as protective apparel programs. He participates in a number of industry organizations, and frequently addresses trade associations and groups regarding safety topics.