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Arc Flash Dangers
As we all know, construction is one of the most rewarding, yet dangerous, occupations in the world, a situation which is only magnified when electricity is added into the mix. With that in mind, the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee is sponsoring a series of seminar across the country to draw attention to one particularly hazardous event.

It’s part of the NECA-IBEW team’s desire to not only reach out to contractors and craftsmen alike, but to involve owners, as well. Electric TV’s Bert Gurule has more from Canton, Ohio.
It happens somewhere every single day. It’s an electrician’s worst nightmare. It can be deadly. And almost always, it’s avoidable. It’s called arc flash.

Richard Gojdics, Westex, Inc.
“When a flash occurs it takes place in a fraction of a second. And somewhere in that sixth of a second to a tenth of a second the event is over. The danger of an arc flash is the magnitude of energy that is coming out of that electric equipment as a result of the fault.”

OSHA has had laws in place for decades to help prevent this, and since 1976, when the NFPA 70E committee was formed, at the request of OSHA, the 70E standard has been evolving to recognize the latest safe work practices. OSHA and NFPA 70E generally require that work be done de-energized on circuits of 50 volts or greater. Workers and contractors have known about it, but not necessarily the customer.

Steve Abbott, President, Stark Safety Consultants
“Now, the norm is: get the work done, at all costs, don’t shut things down, try to do things as quickly as possible so they can get the productivity up to the level that they need it to be. Where we need them to be is understanding that by doing by doing things in that manner, they’re setting themselves up for a greater downtime if there is an accident.”

Steve Abbott, a second-generation contractor, assisted the NJATC in conducting seminars like this one in Canton, Ohio.

One of the key functions here, according to Mike Callanan, Executive Director of the NJATC, is to involve the customer in the hazard awareness training.

Michael Callanan, Executive Director, NJATC
“Frequently our members and our contractors are asked to work for customers. It’s they’re understanding of this electrical hazard that is critical to the whole equation. They need to know what the risks and hazards are when we come into their buildings and try to work on their electrical equipment. So it’s an important component to have our customers side by side with us.”

A whole industry has been developed to help increase safety. Everything from ways to de-energize equipment and make it electrically safe, to special protective equipment, including rubber insulating gloves, flame-resistant clothing, and head, eye, and face protection designed to help protect workers when they must work energized.

There are programs to guide a company through what they need to do, but it does require an up-front investment.

Richard Gojdics, Westex, Inc.
“When you look at the cost of an electrical accident, and you have a severe burn that occurs, the average direct cost is typically over a million dollars. The outer edge of this number is somewhere between three and four million dollars per incident. And those are direct costs related to the medical procedures, and so forth. The indirect costs can sometimes get upwards of 10 to 12 million dollars per event. So when you put those types of numbers on the table and you compare them to the minimal steps up in cost from cotton clothing or polyester clothing to proper PPE, and you compare the step up versus the incident cost, the numbers are not at all alike.”

There’s an older generation that’s fighting the change, says NECA’s Tom Shreves. But, he adds, workers can no longer sacrifice safety to be macho.

Thomas Shreves, Executive Director, NECA – North/Central Ohio Chapter
“When a bomb squad goes up to a sandwich bag, not knowing whether there’s a bomb or a sandwich in it, they go up to it in protective equipment. They don’t g up to it in a T-shirt and blue jeans. And for many years, I went up to electrical panels, knowing full well what the potential energy was there, but always thinking that it was a sandwich, and not a bomb.”

Patrick Harvey thought the same way. Then in September of 1996, he was replacing a breaker in a medical center’s electrical system when the accident occurred.

Patrick Harvey, Retired Electrician, Local 246
“I just felt like there was something that was wrong. I don’t know whether it was a movement of the wire, or what. Honestly to this day, I don’t know.”

That premonition caused him to take a step back. He warned his coworkers, then put his arms over his face for protection.

Patrick Harvey, Retired Electrician, Local 246
“There was an explosion. And my friend was burnt on his arm, but it blew me back into a pipe behind me, and put a little indentation in my skull, and I was on fire. It burnt the copper bus in half. The copper from that bus was like bullets shooting into my chest. I had a number of places where that copper shot into me, and it’s amazing that I didn’t lose my eyes. I couldn’t get away from it.”

The scars on his arms and chest, where the metal and flames penetrated, are reminders of the third-degree burns he sustained over 42 percent of his body. He was one of the lucky ones – he lived to talk about it, but tries to forget the pain.

He understands first-hand why precautions need to be taken. The question here is, did that message reach the customer?

Steve Abbott, President, Stark Safety Consultants
“I think the reactions to these seminars are overwhelmingly good. Almost everybody in the industry has heard the term 70E, they’ve heard of arc flash. From a comprehensive approach, they’re all looking for more information. I’ve had an overwhelming response to the seminar that we’ve had recently and the response has been, give me the information, where can I get it? It’s not, ‘Can I come?’ It’s ‘Who else can I bring?’”

Richard Oaks, M.K. Morse Co
“I feel that our company will benefit from this. It will protect our employees and give us a better understanding of what we need to do to take care of our employees.”

Henry Douglas, Douglas Electric, Inc.
“If I had to go out of business to protect my workers, then yes, I think that’s a better alternative than to take the chance on somebody getting hurt.”