Electrical Hazards – Why PPE Alone is Not Enough

At four times hotter than the sun, an arc flash damages everything in 
its path: property, production, and most importantly, people.<br><br>Everything.<br><br>Even
 if wearing the correctly rated PPE, a worker involved in an arc flash 
still faces potential injury. The force of the blast can literally 
catapult your team member across the room... unless a beam or other 
immovable object stops him first. Littelfuse

Steve Maurer, IME

At four times hotter than the sun, an arc flash damages everything in its path: property, production, and most importantly, people.

Everything.

Even if wearing the correctly rated PPE, a worker involved in an arc flash still faces potential injury. The force of the blast can literally catapult your team member across the room... unless a beam or other immovable object stops him first.

PPE alone may not be enough to protect your team from injury and possible death. And PPE doesn't protect your property and won't save lost dollars from production downtime.

What you need is... prevention.

The hierarchy of controls
NIOSH has a great graphic called the Hierarchy of Controls. Imagine a segmented, inverted pyramid. In visual format, it shows the ways to reduce electrical hazards, listed from most effective at the top, down to least.

At the bottom of the pyramid? PPE.

Sure, it's a necessity and a code requirement. But overall, it's the least effective means of mitigating risk.

And second from the bottom? Administrative controls.

That includes an effective lockout/tagout program, along with proper training of qualified electrical personnel. And of course, training your other workers to be safe around electrical equipment and stay out of harm's way.

The biggest problem with these two controls? Yeah, you guessed it.

Humans.

Don't get me wrong... I like humans. I am a human! But humans make mistakes, one of the biggest factors in any industrial accident. That's one reason NFPA 70E focuses on administrative measures and PPE.

Both are important and necessary. But, neither one is foolproof.

At the top of the pyramid: elimination. Of course, if you remove the hazard — electricity — you remove the risk. You also remove your ability to manufacture your product.

That's not going to happen, right?

Number two is substitution. Great idea when working with hazardous chemicals and such. Getting rid of toxins, flammables, and caustics is a great idea. But, I gotta ask...

What will you use instead of electricity? That's a tough one.

So we turn to the risk mitigator right smack dab in the middle of the hierarchy of controls: engineering controls.

Engineering controls promote prevention. They isolate people (and property) from the hazard.

Achieving electrical safety... by design
During my research for this article, I came across an interesting white paper that talked about achieving electrical safety by design.

It introduced me to a product I'd not heard of before: the arc-flash relay. Using optical sensors, current sensors, or a combination of both, these devices can sense a fault and trip a breaker in about 1 millisecond.

That’s typically quick enough to dramatically reduce the amount of energy, explosive force and other associated hazards of arc flash. This can significantly reduce damage to property, production... and personnel.

I think the optical sensors are really cool. They sense the high intensity light of an arc-flash and initiate the breaker to kill it before it grows.

Arc-flash control relays are typically used in switchgear, MCCs, generators, and panels that exceed 300 VAC. And while they're often designed into new equipment, they can be retrofitted into old installs as well.

Good thing... I've worked on a lot of old systems that could really use them!
These relays are relatively inexpensive, often falling within a maintenance budget as an operating expense, not a CapEx. That's up to the accountants, right?

But this one thing's sure.

Along with PPE and administrative controls, hazard prevention by design is one of the most effective ways to get more bang – make that less bang –  for your buck.


Photo courtesy of Littelfuse

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