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Prevent Injuries, Death from Arc Flashes by Complying with NFPA Standards

'I’m not offering arc flash education or providing safety rules or guidelines, I am simply telling what could happen if you don’t follow your safety procedures,' says one electrician who learned this lesson the hard way.

The intense heat, UV radiation and deafening blasts from arc flashes can severely affect anyone within several feet, leading to burnt skin requiring years of skin grafts, retinal damage, injured lungs, ruptured organs, broken bones and even electrocution.

Electrical contractor Donnie Johnson, who launched his own website to share the story of his August 12, 2004, accident and to promote awareness about the prevention of them, knows these injuries all too well. 

As he wrote on his Donnie’s Accident website, “That year, while living and working in Tampa, Florida, the city was bracing for Hurricane Charlie, and my job was to connect a large electrical generator to a giant frozen foods warehouse facility in preparation for it.” He explained how he wound up suffering third-degree burns down to the muscle on both arms and hands, and second-degree burns to his face, head and neck due to an arc flash explosion. The heat of the arc blast seared through him in a split second at a temperature the burn unit doctors told him was seven times as hot as the sun’s surface.He continued to explain that "when his wife came to the accident scene, she could only identify him by recognizing his boots sitting near his stretcher in the ambulance.

Arc flashes, like most, are not the result of direct electric shocks, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Instead, when the insulation between high voltage conductors is compromised, an arc flash can form between the conductors, causing a potentially explosive release of thermal energy. This can occur, for example, if a dropped tool or even rust is introduced between the components. Often, incidents occur when a worker mistakenly fails to ensure that equipment has been properly unplugged or de-energized.They can even occur when a worker is simply removing a cover from a piece of equipment.

Johnson is just one of thousands injured by arc flashes every year. A U.S. Department of Labor study found that during a seven-year period, 2,576 workers died and more than 32,000 suffered injuries from electrical shock and burn injuries. A whopping 77 percent of recorded electrical injuries were due to arc flash incidents. 

According to statistics compiled by CapSchell Inc. every day, in the U.S. alone, 5-10 arc flash incidents occur, some fatal. Although NFPA 70E, the leading internationally recognized safety standard for electrical safety in the workplace, has determined standards that define a set of safe requirements for personnel working on electrical equipment, it is still a work in progress to get all employers to comply. Organizations must carry out a hazard risk assessment and ensure that all employees working in a potential arc-flash hazard zone use appropriate equipment and wear the right protective clothing—something Johnson neglected to do.

“I’m not offering ‘arc flash’ education or providing safety rules or guidelines, I am simply telling what could happen if you don’t follow your safety procedures,” he wrote. “This is about my personal experiences before, during and since the accident. Also how it affects you and those who care about and depend on you…all of this happened to me because I wasn't wearing my safety gear.”

To learn about how facility managers can comply with applicable national standards set forth by the NFPA, attend the upcoming Data Center World presentation given by Daniel Bumbernick, application engineer for Eaton during the March 12-15, 2018 event in San Antonio. Download a brochure here.

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