Full recovery from an arc flash injury is a long road
There is a good reason why, if you Google “flame resistant clothing,” up pops about 1,160,000 results. As with other personal protective clothing (PPE) such as respirators and fall protection, FR clothing can be literal life savers.
Consider the high stakes: Five to ten arc explosions occur in electric equipment every day in the United States, according to statistics compiled by CapSchell, Inc., a Chicago-based research and consulting firm that specializes in preventing workplace injuries and deaths.
Each year more than 2,000 people are treated in burn centers with severe arc-flash injuries, according to the fact sheet.
Nature of the risk
An arc flash can cause minor injuries, third degree burns and potential death as well as other injuries including blindness, hearing loss, nerve damage and cardiac arrest. Fatal burns can occur when the victim is several feet from the arc. Serious burns are common at a distance of ten feet.
Lost days and livelihoods
Exposure to an electrical arc or a strong current spark between a highly charged source and the ground is the most destructive and potentially catastrophic indirect electrical injury. The result can be instantaneous deep thermal burns. Only 30 percent of severe burn cases are released for return to work, according to Paradigm Systematic Care Management. On average, only 15 percent of severe burn injury cases return to work full time across industry. The number of days off work after hospitalization correlates closely with the number of days hospitalized, which in turn correlates significantly with percentage of body surface area burned, according to an article in the Journal of Occupational Medicine.
In addition to fatalities, major high-voltage electrical trauma can produce devastating physical injuries. Repeated removal of tissue, amputations, and extensive rehabilitation are common in high-voltage electrical injuries, according to a fact sheet by the Energy Recovery Council Alliance. It is not unusual for treatment to require tissue removal over several days, and frequently the damage becomes significant enough to warrant amputation. Limb amputation rates for victims who experience direct electrical contact can be as high as 75 percent, and most victims who survive high-voltage electrical shock are left permanently disabled, according to the fact sheet.
Physical and non-physical trauma
If a person comes into contact with a high-voltage power source, the outer layer of the skin is usually destroyed by heat within milliseconds. Once the outer layer of the skin is destroyed, large currents are able to pass through and produce tissue damage, especially to skeletal muscle and nerve. In addition to tissue damage, an arc blast can cause other types of injuries from the physical force of impacts including falls, broken bones, and concussions. In addition, other non-physical issues may affect employees with electrical injuries. Examples of these include problems with the speed of mental processing, attention, concentration, memory, and post-traumatic stress disorders.
Treatment is complicated by progressive tissue death (necrosis) and the need for multiple surgical interventions. Surgeons have difficulty identifying the living versus dead tissue.
Most deaths due to severe burns occur two to three weeks after the burn incident as bodily systems collapse. It is important that employees and employers understand that even with no visible burn, survivors may be faced with long-term muscular pain and discomfort, fatigue, inadequate balance and coordination or even limb amputation.