By Jeff Wolfla, CRIS, CESCP, Electrical Safety Specialist
Vice President, Insurance & Safety – Boyd, Shackelford, Barnett, & Dixon, LLC.
How many times have you encountered screws missing from electrical equipment covers? Found tools, material, or trash left inside of energized electrical equipment? Or viewed foreign matter such as water, oil, or powder covering electrical equipment? In my 15 years as a safety professional for a commercial electrical and mechanical contractor, I have seen many of these conditions. Unsafe electrical conditions that may cause potential arcing fault (arc flash) events may be present on our jobs and we are completely unaware until it’s too late.
Arc flash hazards occur when a source of possible injury or damage to health is associated with the release of energy caused by an electrical hazard (2021, NFPA 70E – Article 100 Definitions). Electric arc fault incidents are created from conditions such as but not limited to; a previous contractor leaving tools/material inside of equipment, unsafe electrical installation, manufacturer defects or improper maintenance of electrical equipment. Any of these factors may increase the risks when operating electrical equipment. Most electrical injuries involve burns such as contact burns, conduction burns, and arc flash burns when working with electrical switchgear.
Over my years of evaluating hundreds of energized electrical work permits, many of the arc flash calculation results were between 2 cal/cm² and 12 cal/cm² with a phase-to-phase fault calculation. This may not seem very dangerous for an arc flash calculation at first, but keep in mind that 1.2 cal/cm² is the threshold of 3rd degree burns (incurable). It has been said that 1.5 cal/cm² is equivalent to a lit cigarette being put out on your bare arm. In addition, many of the conditions associated with arc faults cannot be identified through a visual inspection of the equipment alone prior to task being performed.
Employers must prioritize the well-being of their teams that work around electrical hazards by emphasizing and investing in a culture of safety. Consider these numbers – statistics from the Workplace Safety Awareness Council show that arc flash incidents cause 7,000 burn injuries per year and hospitalization costs range from $200,000 to $750,000. OSHA suggests that the total cost of an arc flash injury may exceed $1 million. Most employers are aware of the responsibility to provide employees with training, procedures, and equipment to comply with the standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace (2021, NFPA 70E – 105.3(A)). However, they may not realize the wide exposures these types of incidents present. Building owners and plant managers (Host Employers) have a responsibility of qualifying the safe work procedures of contractors that work on their premises (2021, NFPA 70E – 110.7(A)).
Responsible owners and contractors together have an obligation to create a safe working environment for any persons working on or around electrical equipment using the Hierarchy of Controls (2021, NFPA 70E – 110.5(H)(3)). If you are responsible for authorizing electrical work to be performed or performing the work yourself, then you have an obligation to assess the hazards and identify the proper procedures for completing the task safely in accordance with the Hierarchy of Controls.
When implementing the Hierarchy of Controls, there are several ways to reduce the human risk when working around energized electrical equipment. One example is requiring the use of remote racking or switching devices in lieu of an electrician manually operating a 2000amp breaker with high-incident energy potential. When used in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions and training, these remotely controlled robotic devices allow electrical workers to safely operate (turn on/off or install/extract) electrical apparatuses on switchgear from outside of the arc flash hazard boundaries. This represents an engineering control for less hazardous exposure or severity when used correctly. Reducing or eliminating injuries resulting from an arc flash incident is the most important reason for implementing remote switching and racking devices into your work process.
As you can see in Figure 2, the most important action you can take is eliminating the hazard by creating an electrically safe work condition through de-energization and lockout / tagout. By contrast, the least effective method of preventing electrical injuries is providing Arc Flash Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and working near energized equipment that poses shock and arc flash hazards. With the majority of Arc Flash PPE designed to ONLY prevent 3rd degree burns, the risk of being injured is high even when appropriately wearing the PPE for a specific task. By using remote switching and racking devices, you remove the concern for injuries and/or fatalities by isolating the worker from the hazard. The equipment should be viewed as an investment, considering the costs associated with an injured employee, related medical and legal costs, OSHA fines, business interruption and reputation costs.
In addition to creating an increased safety culture, there’s potential for significant insurance and liability savings. Organizations should partner with an insurance agent who can identify and communicate advances in safety procedures to insurance carriers. With proper procedures and techniques implemented, an insured may experience percentage savings to their premiums driving more to the company’s bottom line.
With proper planning, training, and equipment; we can prevent countless injuries and fatalities that effect the electrical industry every year.
Jeff Wolfla, CRIS, CESCP, is an experienced electrical safety professional with a passion to help electrical contractors create and maintain a safe working environment. Jeff is the Vice President of Insurance and Safety for Boyd, Shackelford, Barnett and Dixon, LLC, providing Property & Casualty insurance programs to his electrical contractor clients. Jeff’s clients experience success by lowering their risk and improving safety, decreasing their overall insurance costs. Jeff’s value-add services create benefits for his contractors, their customers, the insurance company – and most importantly the electrician closest to the work.
“Arc Flashes Cause 7K Injuries Per Year and $200K to $750K in Hospital Costs” ISHN, June 30, 2015,
“Electrical Safety For General Industry,” OSHA, 2018