Education vital when implementing NFPA 70E code updates

The leading cause, contact with an electric current, is something construction employees are exposed to on a regular basis. These injuries commonly come from incidences of arc flash energy.

By Brian Downie, Faith Technologies Inc. December 1, 2015

More than 24,000 electrical injuries occurred in the United States between 2003 and 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The leading cause, contact with an electric current, is something construction employees are exposed to on a regular basis. These injuries commonly come from incidences of arc flash energy.

Dust, condensation, corrosion, material failure, and faulty installation can all cause an electric current to lose containment and travel through open air to another conductor or the ground. Other causes can be man-made when employees drop items in enclosures or perform repair-related activities while power is present. These underlying causes of arc flash seem simple, but the results are often violent—and even deadly—for anyone standing nearby.

The electricity traveling through the air in an arc flash can cause burns from intense heat or fire and molten metal. The blast pressure of an arc flash can reach more than 2,000 psf, with a sound blast as loud as a gunshot. In the face of these extreme reactions, simple measures such as wearing proper protective equipment and using insulated tools can save lives. These measures are addressed in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 70E: Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace 2015 Edition, and it’s essential for all electrical personnel to be familiar with the latest guidelines on this topic.

New for 2015

NFPA 70E was originally requested by OSHA to outline best practices and requirements for workplace safety and maintenance as well as safety requirements for energized electrical equipment. The goal of this guide has always been to reduce exposure to electrical hazards to avoid injuries and fatalities from shock, electrocution, arc blast, and arc flash through hazard identification and risk assessment, establishing safe work conditions and protective personal equipment (PPE), and general education and training.

In the 2015 edition, NFPA shares new detailed tables for arc flash hazard identification. It also includes a table of arc flash PPE categories, which specifies specific levels of PPE for different types and ratings of electrical equipment. These tables identify which category, level, and type of PPE are required based on equipment being used and the electrical ratings involved, as well as when PPE is not required for safety regulations.

There are some changes in the new code tables that are creating confusion on a national level, such as "Category 0" no longer being defined as a "hazard category." The code book has not explained their interpretation goals of this change very well. The need for minimal PPE such as cotton clothing, safety glasses, and hearing protection is still present; and, in lieu of this common goal for nonmelting fabrics, most employers are still using the same language that the past code books had in place, calling all items that fall within that 1.2 cal/cm2 or less range a Category 0 PPE label.

Because of the complexity and diversity of electrical-power-distribution systems, preventive maintenance and education to identify hazards of shock and arc flash are essential for workers’ safety. In the interest of ensuring safety for all of its workers under the new NFPA 70E, companies are providing hands-on seminars covering specific requirements in the new code release, along with liability discussions on current needs and overall safety goals.

Education begins with basics

Arc flash safety begins with a focus on daily work-practice fundamentals and a complete vision on OSHA guidelines for electrical safe-work practices. Above all other precautions, the most effective way to completely avoid the dangers of arc flash is simple: de-energize all electrical circuits before working on them. In addition, any equipment that operates at 50 V or more should carry a warning label that clearly instructs users what protective gear should be worn when using it.

To have a fundamental program that follows OSHA’s expectations, the attention must be placed on tracing and physically confirming the lockout/tagout (LOTO) aspects of electrical systems to ensure eventual engineering facts are validated. Successful training has an employee-based focus to create programs that are practical and end-user driven, which is not commonly seen on a national level. All electrical one-line diagrams are custom-created and, again, driven by daily-use goals and LOTO value for employees who are being asked to use the data.

Safe solutions to a common risk hazard

An arc flash is one component of an overall topic. To have an effective plan in place requires a combined effort among safety managers and policy development to provide safety training with key staff members and a good structural NFPA 70E program on-site that employees can understand.

Failure to have a sound program in place can result in obvious OSHA citations as well as third-party liability claims that all employers seek to avoid, not to mention real concerns with employee health and well-being.

Safety is a priority on any job site, and education for both vendors and customers is the key to safety success. Taking extra steps to offer a complete solution to this complex safety issue plays a major role in securing the safety of workers and end users alike.

Brian Downie is group manager of elite services for Faith Technologies Inc