Industry initiative takes aim at arc flash risk

Each year, more than 32,000 U.S. workers in a wide range of industries sustain lost-time injuries due to electrical shock or burns, and more than 2,000 individuals die from electricity-related accidents on the job.

By Plant Engineering Staff September 15, 2008

Each year, more than 32,000 U.S. workers in a wide range of industries sustain lost-time injuries due to electrical shock or burns, and more than 2,000 individuals die from electricity-related accidents on the job. In addition to the human aspect, companies of all sizes experience costly downtime and productivity loss due to electrical safety incidents, which makes eliminating these occurrences a high priority for all organizations.

In an effort to prevent electricity-related accidents and better understand the causes of arc flash, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has teamed with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to support the Arc Flash Collaborative Research Project . The objectives of this initiative are:

  • To improve electrical safety standards

  • To predict the hazards associated with arcing faults and accompanying arc blasts

  • To give organizations the necessary information to develop workplace safeguards tailored to their individual circumstances.

    • The arc flash phenomenon

      According to the NFPA, an arc flash occurs “when an electric current passes through air between ungrounded conductors or between ungrounded conductors and grounded conductors.” An arc flash explosion produces intense energy that can super heat the air to 35,000 F, which is roughly four times the surface temperature of the sun. An explosion also yields equally devastating sound and pressure waves, blinding light, intense ultraviolet rays and gaseous toxins — all without warning — resulting in critical burns, collapsed lungs, blindness, loss of hearing, puncture wounds and, possibly, death.

      Arc flashes can occur if people are working on, or near, energized conductors or circuits; if workers move near, or contact the equipment; or if the equipment fails altogether. Any of these conditions may cause a phase-to-ground or phase-to-phase electrical fault.

      Ground breaking research ahead

      Protecting workers from arc flash hazards is critical to all companies whose employees work around and/or service electrical equipment. This objective may be accomplished by requiring personnel to wear arc flash personal protective equipment, and by modifying the design and configuration of electrical equipment.

      A high level of concern among leading businesses and organizations has prompted widespread efforts to improve education and provide solutions that help companies protect their most important assets — their people.

      In this spirit, Eaton is a platinum sponsor of the multi-year Arc Flash Collaborative Research Project that will go a long way toward understanding arc flash events worldwide. The $6 million to $7 million initiative will involve more than 2,000 test protocols that measure the thermal, pressure, sound, shrapnel, toxicity and radiative phenomena generated in arc flashes, and will explore how enclosures affect the energy released.

      Other platinum sponsors, who will work closely with NFPA and IEEE to enhance worker safety, include Underwriters Laboratories, Cooper Bussmann, Ferraz Shawmut, Schneider Electric and Bruce Power.

      The project will build upon standards to protect workers from arc flash hazards. These standards include:

    • NFPA 70-2005National Electrical Code , which contains requirements for arc flash warning labels

    • NFPA 70E-2000Standard for Electrical Safety Requirements for Employee Workplaces , which provides guidance on practices to safeguard workers from injury while working on, or near, exposed electrical conductors or circuit parts that could become energized

    • ANSI/IEEE 1584-2002Guide for Performing Arc-Flash Hazard Calculations , which provides techniques for determining the arc flash hazard distance and the incident energy to which employees could be exposed during the work on, or near, electrical equipment.

      • Under the leadership of three seasoned professionals, I am confident that this initiative will meet all of its objectives. Dr. P.K. Sen and Mr. Ravel Ammerman serve as joint project managers, and Dr. Tammy L. Gammon is the research manager.

        Dr. Sen is professor and site director of the Power Systems Engineering Research Center at the Colorado School of Mines. He has more than 40 years of teaching, research and consulting engineering experience in the field of power engineering, has published more than 120 papers on power-related topics and is a senior member of IEEE.

        Mr. Ammerman is a lecturer and PhD candidate in the Engineering Division at the Colorado School of Mines. He has more than 25 years of teaching and industrial experience in the power industry.

        Dr. Gammon was a senior electrical engineer in industry and a visiting assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has a wide range of arc flash research experience, and has published widely and organized seminars on the topic. She also served on an IEEE/NFPA Joint Task Force on Arc Flash and on the IEEE 1584 Arc Flash Hazard Working Group.

        Bob Yanniello is Eaton’s representative on the Technical Advisory Committee of the Collaborative Research Project. As a platinum contributor, this position serves as the liaison between the Committee and Eaton. It also allows Eaton to participate in the oversight and direction of the activities of the Technical Advisory Committee, such as reviewing test plans and resultant test data.

        Expected outcomes

        The Arc Flash Collaborative Research Project will give companies the same degree of information about protecting workers exposed to electrical safety hazards that the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Health and Safety Administration regulations provide for the handling of hazardous chemicals and maintaining safe working conditions, respectively. If OSHA or Congress chooses to implement workplace electrical safety regulations or legislation, project content can serve as the basis for public policy, or may be used verbatim. The same holds true if state agencies or legislatures choose to strengthen on-the-job safety requirements.

        Besides improving electrical safety in the workplace, the Arc Flash Collaborative Research Project will benefit commercial and government insurance programs alike by reducing workers’ compensation and disability claims. The resulting decrease in overhead costs can help to make U.S. companies more competitive in a global marketplace that becomes more challenging each day.

        Clearly, this joint effort is a wise investment of scarce resources. All of us who are part of the Arc Flash Collaborative Research Project welcome the participation of other interested companies, associations and foundations committed to eliminating electricity-related workplace accidents. As our parents, grandparents and teachers told us more than we probably wanted to hear, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

        Jerry Whitaker is president, Power Components and Systems Business, Eaton Corp ., a diversified power management company with 81,000 employees.