It is widely acknowledged that Arc Flash incidents are major hazards in the workplace. The energy expelled by an Arc Flash event can be deadly, with temperatures reaching up to 35,000ºF or more than 19,000ºC. It goes without saying; this can burn clothing and human skin within fractions of a second, even if the operative is situated five or six meters away from the Arc Flash event. The energy expelled by an Arc Flash can be equally as deadly and can result in an explosive pressure wave than can throw a worker across the room and a bright flash that can cause blindness.
An Arc Flash occurs when an electrical discharge travels through the air and releases an intense burst of energy.
An electric arc, also known as an arc discharge, occurs when an electrical discharge or short circuit moves through the air. Voltage spikes, worn connections, cable strikes, or gaps in insulation are just some of the reasons that an Arc Flash occurs. The flash and burst of intense energy is the result, with the very serious risk to life This flash is capable of causing serious harm to anyone caught by it, so adequate Arc Flash protection is of the utmost importance.
An Arc Flash event may not be a daily occurrence in your business, but it must be recognised as a real danger to your team. Mitigating risk with safe working practices and by providing appropriate garments that offer superior Arc Flash protection saves lives every day. There will always remain a risk to those exposed to an Arc Flash, but there is significant Arc Flash protection available through wearing the correct garments.
Awareness of the dangers of Arc Flash incidents and the need to protect your team with specialist Arc Flash protection is more important today than it has ever been. A focus on Arc Flash protection will only increase as you become more aware of the dangers an Arc Flash incident can pose.
A fundamental aspect is to understand if your teams are at risk of Arc Flash, if you are operating in an industrial electrical, power generation, or petrochemicals environment, breaking ground in a utility company, or undertaking work on the railways then it is vital that you have although understanding of Arc Flash and how to mitigate the risk.
Despite many believing an Arc Flash is only a risk in high-voltage situations, an Arc Flash remains a danger even when working in low-voltage environments. Wearing the correct Arc Flash protective garments for a specific risk level will increase safety for those at risk.
It’s not just those who work directly on electrical systems who need to know about Arc Flash risks. Depending on the incident energy and whether it happens in a confined space (which focuses the energy forwards instead of allowing it to dissipate sideways), a blast from an Arc Flash can affect people many meters away. So all of your operational teams must be aware of the causes of Arc Flash and how it might affect them.
ARC FLASH CAUSE – EQUIPMENT FAILURE
It stands to reason that if equipment fails or is improperly designed or installed, an Arc Flash incident could be caused. Faulty system design can also contribute to an increased likelihood of Arc Flash incidents, also known as electrical flashovers.
Damage to insulation, gaps, or wear and tear can also create the pathways needed for an unwanted electric discharge through the air. Exposed live parts or loose connections could also be the culprits.
Regular inspections of your electrical systems and equipment will help to predict and prevent Arc Flash incidents.
ARC FLASH CAUSE – SPONTANEOUS
Other factors can increase the likelihood of an Arc Flash incident. These causes include:
- Corrosion of electrical equipment
- A build-up of dust, which can conduct an electrical charge.
- Moisture or vapor, which can also conduct an electrical charge.
- Animal contact – mice, for example, can create the route needed for an Arc Flash to occur.
ARC FLASH CAUSE – HUMAN ERROR
Human error is the most common cause of Arc Flash incidents. It could be a gang breaking ground and hitting a cable not marked on the services plan, a test probe touched to the wrong surface, or a tool dropped accidentally which hits a live switchgear.
Other ways that human error can cause an Arc Flash are through the improper installation of equipment, preventative maintenance that isn’t carried out properly (or at all), and failure to de-energise equipment where it’s possible.
A lack of appropriate training can increase the chances of human error causing an incident. But distractions, weariness, the pressure to get the job done quickly and restore power, or just an overly-relaxed attitude can make electrical engineers bypass safety procedures, which can all too easily result in a dropped tool or making contact between energised conductors.
Creating awareness of the severity of Arc Flash incidents throughout your organisation, and the potential injuries that could occur can help to develop a culture within your workforce which actively seeks to avoid electrical and especially Arc Flash incidents.
KEEPING YOUR PEOPLE SAFE FROM AN ARC FLASH
If you understand the causes of Arc Flash incidents you can take steps to keep yourself safe. But when the majority of Arc Flash incidents occur due to human error or just sheer accident, what more can you do?
Ensuring there’s a thorough Arc Flash hazard assessment for the system you’re working on and understanding the hierarchy of control is both helpful in predicting Arc Flash incidents. Once you have done everything proactive to understand the system and its risks, personal protective equipment (PPE) specifically designed to protect against Arc Flash (not just simple fire resistance) is your last line of defence.
Choosing the wrong PPE for your team compromises their safety. However, not all Arc Flash clothing is made equal. Additionally, incorrect use of Arc Flash PPE can impact protection levels and leave workers vulnerable should the worst happen.
Understanding the different factors to consider when choosing and specifying the right PPE for your team is the first step in ensuring your team’s safety.