As safety seminars go, this one was a real blast. Quite literally.

In May of this year, Cornerstone Safety Group conducted live NFPA 70E arc flash testing as part of its Electrical Safety/NFPA 70E Seminar. Held at KEMA Powertest Laboratory in Chalfont, Pa., the testing allowed attendees to witness live arc flash exposures to flame-resistant (FR) and non-FR clothing utilizing common low-voltage 480-600 electrical equipment that could typically be found at most work facilities.

“To the best of our knowledge we are the first to invite the public to witness first-hand live arc flash testing,” said Michael D. Wright, vice president of Cornerstone.

Dangers of electrical work

Utilizing test mannequins donned in both FR and non-FR garments, arc flash explosions were demonstrated using such common electrical equipment as 30, 100, 200, 400 and 600 amp disconnect switches, motor control centers, panelboards, and dry transformers. The goal of the testing was to show just how dangerous electrical hazards can be, and how workers can protect themselves from such hazards.

The seminar, attended by approximately 70 professionals over two days — including safety directors, safety managers, risk managers, capital deployment supervisors, engineers, technical training managers, OSHA personnel, and others — was designed to heighten attendees’ awareness of the hazards associated with electrical work, including shock, arc flash and blasts, and to help pros identify electrical hazards.

In addition to the arc flash testing, the seminar covered safety-related work practices, including training requirements, flash hazard analysis, selection and use of PPE, and approach boundaries.

“Good people” burned

Cornerstone was founded in 2003 by electrical and safety industry veterans Gregory A. Woodworth, president, and Wright. One of the reasons they formed Cornerstone was because they were fed up with seeing “good people having their lives altered through burns,” said Woodworth. Over the years in their careers as electrical contractors they had seen friends of theirs burned badly in arc blasts from low-voltage equipment. “That’s why we’re doing this,” he asserted.

Woodworth stressed the need for increased awareness of electrical safety among industrial workers, citing the National Safety Council’s estimates that more than 30,000 non-fatal electrical shock accidents occur each year, and between 600 and 1,000 people die annually from electrocution. The NSC reports that of those killed with voltages less than 600V, nearly half were working on “exposed” energized circuits at the time the fatal injury occurred. Electrocution is the fourth highest cause of industrial fatalities, behind traffic, violence/homicide and construction incidents.

Up to 80 percent of all electrical injuries are burns resulting from an arc flash ignition of flammable clothing, said Woodworth, who spent 29 years with the U.S.’s 20th largest electrical contractor before starting Cornerstone Safety Group. “The majority of workers don’t realize what they’re up against,” he said. “Most injuries can be prevented.”

What did testing accomplish?

“The testing we did was to show corporate America the hazard their maintenance workers are exposed to on a daily basis,” said Wright, whose electrical and safety career combined spans more than 28 years. “Everyone in attendance was extremely surprised with the magnitude of a live electrical explosion. The difference between watching an electrical explosion on a videotape and witnessing it in person would be similar to watching a car wreck on television and actually being in the car when it wrecks.”

One of the key issues in electrical safety that Cornerstone wanted to demonstrate in its testing was how much difference flame-resistant clothing makes in protecting the worker.

“For decades it was thought by electrical workers that 100-percent cotton fabrics should be worn instead of poly-cotton blends,” said Wright. Both fall short of what’s needed for protection. “In an electrical arc exposure, which can reach temperatures up to 35,000°F, poly-cotton blends can ignite, melt and adhere to the skin causing severe contact burns. While cotton clothing may not melt like a poly-cotton fabric, it can ignite at temperatures as low as 800°F and continue to burn.”

“Government studies have reported that the majority of severe and fatal burn injuries are due to non-flame-resistant clothing igniting and continuing to burn, not by the exposure itself,” Wright continued. “In these situations, even a low-voltage 1/8th-of-second electrical arc can ignite non-flame-resistant clothing, which can become a hazard itself long after the initial arc exposure is over.”

“During our presentation, attendees were able to observe with their very own eyes the hazard of not having their workers in FR clothing,” he added.

Dramatic protection

Indeed, it was evident from the arc flash testing that FR clothing makes a vast difference. Test mannequins wearing non-FR clothing were clearly severely damaged compared to the mannequins outfitted in FR garments. In most cases the protection provided by the FR garments was dramatic.

“This type of testing will help educate the general public of the capability of Indura® Ultrasoft® FR cotton to afford even greater protection than garments used in the past,” said seminar attendee Randy Wade, senior safety professional, Exelon Energy Delivery, PECO Energy Co. Wade anticipates his company making a significant investment in Indura® Ultrasoft® FR clothing, which was used in the demonstrations, as a result of this testing.

“The test explosions clearly demonstrated that unless your workers are protected through the use of FR clothing and other personal protective equipment, the probability exists that a serious injury will occur during an arc blast event,” said Woodworth.

Wright added: “It is our desire that everyone who attended our seminar and witnessed the destruction of an arc blast utilizing common electrical equipment that can be found in any facility will return to their plants and immediately take steps to protect their workers from the hazards associated with shock, arc and blast.”

Cornerstone’s message is clear: Don’t get burned by electrical hazards; take proactive steps to avoiding injury, one of which is to outfit your workers in flame-resistant clothing.

SIDEBAR: OSHA’s take on electrical safety

OSHA’s David Wallis, director, Office of Engineering Safety, Directorate of Standards and Guidance, attended Cornerstone Safety Group’s Electrical Safety/NFPA 70E Seminar this past May. According to Wallis, here are OSHA’s views regarding key electrical safety issues:

1) How does OSHA view NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace? From a standards perspective, the agency views NFPA 70E as the main consensus standard addressing electrical hazards associated with electrical utilization systems (that is, building and other premises wiring and utilization equipment). The electrical installation and safety-related work practice requirements in our general industry electrical standards in Subpart S are based on previous editions of NFPA 70E. OSHA's proposed revision of the installation requirements in Subpart S are based on Part I of the 2000 edition of that consensus standard. Later stages of this rulemaking project will be based on other parts of NFPA 70E.

2) Does OSHA recommend that companies use NFPA 70E when establishing an electrical safety program? OSHA does not require employers to establish an electrical safety program. However, employers who voluntarily comply with NFPA 70E and establish an electrical safety program under the provisions of that consensus standard will go far in protecting their employees from electrical hazards in their workplaces.

3) Are companies doing enough for electrical safety by using the minimum OSHA standards? OSHA standards are minimum standards. The agency encourages employers to go further to protect employees. OSHA's electrical safety-related work practices standard, for example, is 14 years old. Although it addresses protecting employees from electric arcs, it does so in a general way. The OSHA standard does not include such considerations as arc hazard analysis or selecting protective clothing to match that analysis.

Employers following NFPA 70E recommendations in these areas would better protect their employees than they would by following OSHA standards alone.