I lead an arc flash training session this week with a number of experienced electricians who have worked in industry from five to twenty-five years. Everyone was highly engaged and a real pleasure to teach. What I couldn't get over was the number of intelligent questions that were being asked, some easy to answer and some were quite complicated. But there was one thing that I couldn't stop thinking about, why do all of these highly skilled and knowledgeable individuals have so many unanswered questions about arc flash?
Will my ear plugs melt in my ears during an arc flash? Will my rubber insulated gloves protect me from an arc flash? Can I wear AF coveralls over an AF shirt and pants? Will my AF clothing still work after a certain number of washes? What impact does maintenance have on arc flash? And on and on...
These are all great questions but I feel that it exposes a glaring hole in our overall approach to arc flash safety. It's too complicated.
The truth is these questions came from the same people who were still doing two things that are far more important and impactful than any other questions they could come up with. Working on energized equipment and not wearing PPE.
Applying the Pareto principle
Let's apply the Pareto principle to arc flash safety "For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes." So what causes are going to produce 80% of the effects? Well, I think I've alluded to it already but in my opinion, it's working on de-energized equipment and wearing arc rated PPE.
Step 1: Working on de-energized equipment
Before starting the job you should be asking yourself this question: "Does the task I'm doing require energized equipment to be completed successfully?". Most times the answer is going to be no. Let's look at some examples:
- Cutting a hole in a panel... no
- Changing a contactor... no
- Changing a breaker... no
- Running a wire... nope
- Changing a fuse... no
- Tighten bolts... no
- Complete an infrared scan... oh, yes... you need power for that... did I catch you?
Hopefully, you get the point. If you can turn the power off to complete the task then you are going to reduce the risk to zero. Make sure you follow the steps to establish an electrically safe work condition when you are de-energizing.
Step 2: Wearing arc rated PPE
I'm not even going to say wear the "appropriate" PPE or the "properly rated" PPE. While these things are important what I'm talking about is the things that make up 80% of the difference.
If you are exposed to an arc flash event and you are not wearing any arc rated PPE you are going to be in very bad shape afterward. Maybe you won't even survive. But if you are covered head to toe in arc rated PPE it don't matter if the arc flash incident energy is 5 cal/cm2, 10 cal/cm2, 25cal/cm2 or 100cal/cm2 you will be in far better shape (maybe even walk away without a scratch) than in the example before. Now no one is going to tell you to wear an 8ATPV shirt and pants and stand in front of a 100cal/cm2 arc flash, but what I'm telling you is the difference between wearing nothing and wearing something is insanely huge.
The 2 steps to arc flash safety
It really should be that easy. Don't work on energized equipment, but when you have to make sure you wear PPE. Don't get caught in the weeds, don't put it off because you can't sort out the details. Start doing these two things today and you will greatly improve your chances of staying safe.
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