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January 06, 2014
Arc flash burns lead to over $100K in fines. Are you in compliance?

OSHA has cited an employer and levied fines totaling $119,000 for failure to follow practices that could have prevented an employee from becoming severely burned in an electrical arc flash. Read more to learn how to avoid a similar incident at your workplace.

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Last summer, a maintenance supervisor at a Wisconsin iron foundry was injured while servicing a 480-volt circuit breaker without proper electrical protective equipment. The OSHA area director called the employer’s failure to protect the employee “unacceptable.”

In response, OSHA issued a willful citation for the employer’s failure to ensure that protective equipment was used while the circuit breaker was being operated with the cover removed. This exposed workers to electrical shock, arc blast, and flash hazards.

Seven serious violations were also cited for other electrical safety violations. These included failing to implement safety-related work practices and use protective shields, barriers, and insulating materials to protect employees performing energized tasks; failing to conduct inspections and tests of machinery and insulating rubber gloves; reenergizing circuits before determining that conditions were safe to do so; and a lack of training in safety-related electrical work practices.

What is arc flash, and how do you avoid it?

Arc flash occurs as a result of an electrical arcing fault. The current flows through ionized air, which causes energy to be dissipated, producing intense heat and light. When the surrounding air is heated, an arc blast occurs. The temperature rises dramatically and an explosion results. A worker in the vicinity is at high risk for injury or death.

Every day in the United States, between 5 and 10 arc flash explosions occur. More than 2,000 people a year are treated in burn centers for related injuries.

Primary causes of arc flash incidents include:

  • Inadvertent contact;
  • Loose connections;
  • Insulation failure;
  • Short surges in voltage;
  • Malfunction of circuit interruptions, which causes the fuse or breaker to explode; and
  • Animals, such as squirrels and snakes, that enter electrical equipment seeking warmth.

Employers should create a written plan outlining all aspects of their electrical safety program, including work permits, hazard assessment, maintenance procedures, and responsible personnel. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) lists six steps to ensure conditions for electrically safe work:

  • Identify all sources of power to the equipment.  Check applicable drawings, diagrams, and identification tags.
  • Remove the load current, and then open the disconnecting devices for each power source.
  • Where possible, visually verify that blades of disconnecting devices are fully open or that drawout-type circuit breakers are fully withdrawn.
  • Apply lockout/tagout devices properly.
  • Use a voltage detector to verify that the equipment is de-energized.   Check the voltage detector before and after each test to ensure it is working.
  • Properly ground all possible sources of induced voltage and stored electric energy before touching.

An arc flash incident can result in 6 to 8 months of lost work time. More serious injuries can end a worker’s career or even cost a life. Then there’s the cost. According to one expert, the average medical expense for an employee who survives an arc flash is $1.5 million. The price of litigation and settlement in arc flash cases is between $5 million and $10 million.

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