Content Coordinator, SHP Online

June 1, 2017

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Arc flash: One of the UK’s most overlooked safety risks explained

When it comes to industrial safety, most employers us understand the importance of wearing a hard hat, protective gloves or safety boots.

However, the same can’t be said for those that run the risk of experiencing an arc flash. Something, that despite popular belief, is far more common than most may think.

We asked Tony Arnett, Managing Director at premium PPE supplier, ProGARM, to explain just what an arc flash is, why it is the most dangerous risk on any work site and how you can protect both yourself and your colleagues.

What is an arc flash?

Most of us in the safety industry are familiar with an arc – an electric  luminous bridge formed in a gap between two electrodes – but its severity and danger is often overlooked and can’t be summed up in a simple description. An arc flash occurs during a fault, or short circuit condition, which passes through an arc gap – and, can result in devastating results if the correct equipment isn’t being worn.

Arc flashes can occur for several reasons, and their frequency is somewhat alarming. From being initiated through accidental contact or equipment that is underrated for the available short circuit current, to contamination or deterioration and corrosion of equipment, these are just a few of the many causes of an arc – making the risks higher than many first think.

In a nutshell, an arc flash is high risk, high danger and can result in devastating consequences. Expelling large amounts of deadly energy – causing an ionization of the air – an arc flash can reach temperatures as high as 20,000 Degrees Celsius. To put this danger into context – an arc flash is hotter than the surface of the sun!

Arc Flash

So, what can happen if there’s an arc flash?

We’ve already established that arc flashes can be devastating; however the scale of destruction really can’t be underestimated – here are some examples of how lethal an arc flash strike can be:

  • The high temperature can set fire to clothing and severely burn human skin in fractions of a second, and at a significant distance from the event
  • The heat can also result in ignition of any nearby combustible materials
  • Metal parts near the event can liquefy or vaporize. This will rapidly expand in volume as it changes state from, a solid to vapor, resulting in explosive pressure and soundwaves
  • The pressure wave can knock workers off balance, ladders or even throw them across the room against walls or other equipment
  • The sound blast can cause eardrums to rupture resulting in temporary or permanent hearing loss
  • Molten metal can be sprayed by the blast throughout the vicinity
  • Solid metal debris and other loose objects, such as tools, can be turned into deadly projectiles by the explosion
  • The bright flash can result in temporary or permanent blindness

What is the legislation?

With such drastic consequences, you would be forgiven for expecting strict legislation to be in place in order to protect the people working in these conditions. Especially given the serious – or in many cases, fatal – consequences of getting it wrong. However, there is little appropriate protective measures to mitigate against it – leaving the UK workforce at often extreme risk.

While HSG47 goes some way to address the risks posed by cable strikes, it remains vague and unspecific, with no onus on employers to adequately protect their staff when in the field. In fact, American research concluded that 70% of workplace electrical injuries are caused by an arc flash, not just a simple electric shock, yet many people simply do not know this. When the consequences of getting it wrong are so serious, it is important to properly understand this distinction in order to effectively protect your teams – and yourself – from arc flash hazards.

So, who’s at real risk?  Arc flash hazards occur in many sectors, including utilities, industrial electrical and the petrochemical industries. Safety officers are increasingly aware of the dangers posed by arc flash incidents and take advantage of the various forms of protection to guard their teams against exposure.

How should you protect your staff?

Unfortunately, there is no way to fully protect yourself from an arc flash incident, however protective clothing can help your staff from facing the most fatal of consequences. If worn correctly, arc flash protective clothing and equipment can help to prevent serious injury and fatalities. Here are some key considerations to implement when auditing safety against arc flash:

  • Educating your workforce: If your workforce doesn’t properly understand the dangers posed to them by arc flash hazards because it hasn’t been explained properly, then they may not wear the clothing correctly and can be left vulnerable to the risks of an arc flash as a result. Training a workforce is essential to ensuring optimum safety levels on the ground.
  • Specialist garments: Arc flash protection is found in specialist garments – everything from insulating warm arc flash base layers to arc flash waterproof jackets and trousers. Enhanced and effective arc flash protection comes through wearing layers of protective garments manufactured from inherent fibres and, which feature specific arc flash resilient components. If you don’t have the correct and quality garments, your protection levels will be compromised.
  • Awareness raising: Not all arc flash protective garments are manufactured equally. Whilst many garments meet minimum standards you need to ensure that the level of protection and quality of garment are sufficient to provide the protection the wearer needs. Quality arc flash protective garments from ProGARM won’t simply allow you to survive an incident, they will significantly reduce the level of injury that is sustained. This is because the garments are tested once manufactured, as opposed to the minimum requirement of testing garment swatches. Being aware of the need to invest in quality will in turn improve survival levels.

We believe when lives are at stake you should trust a specialist. Someone who is using 100% inherent fibres, that develops highly durable garments that will continue to offer a high level of protection throughout the life of the garment and that has a high level of production rigour to ensure a consistent quality and garment traceability.

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