Arc Flash PPE – Personal Protective Equipment

What produces temperatures four times greater than the surface of the sun, instantly vaporizes metal, and can throw a grown man across a room like a rag doll?  An arc flash.

Arc flash incidents are severe, and do not discriminate between trained and untrained employees.  An arc flash can occur when energized electrical conductors or circuit parts are exposed, or when they are within equipment in a guarded or closed condition.  Interaction with the equipment can cause electric arcs, too, such as when electrical systems are accidentally contacted, when tools are dropped, or when improper work procedures are followed.  Conditions such as dust build-up and corrosion also cause arc flashes.  The arc flash itself comes from the sudden, explosive release of energy from a fault in a phase to ground, or between 2 phases.

Arc flash incidents are severe and cost many employees their lives.  Of those who survive, many are permanently injured or impaired as a result. This is the main reason why employees need to understand that only trained and qualified personnel can perform work on energized electrical equipment, and they must take appropriate precautions.  They must wear the proper PPE and establish arc flash boundaries to prevent others from being fatally injured.  This is particularly important when testing to verify that equipment has been de-energized.  Arc flashes occur far too frequently when an employee is testing to verify that equipment has been de-energized and find out far too late that it was not.  Wearing arc flash PPE can mean the difference between life and death.  One part of the training these employees go through is to know what types of PPE they need for the work that they will do.  While it might seem like a good idea to use the most protective arc flash PPE available, much of it is bulky and prevents the employee from performing fine manipulations that they may need to do and might even increase the employee’s risk of creating an arc flash.

Arc flash PPE is only as good as its condition.

To ensure that your arc flash PPE is in adequate condition, employees should inspect and care for the PPE per the manufacturer’s instructions.

Pinhole tests should be performed on arc flash gloves before every use, rolling up the cuff to seal the air inside and squeezing the glove to ensure no air escapes.  Even the tiniest pinhole is enough for electricity to find a path into and through the human body.

Gloves must also be tested by an outside party every 6 months after they have been issued.

Caring for arc flash PPE can be trickier than one thinks.  For instance, fabric softeners leave a flammable residue on clothing.  If fire resistant materials are washed with fabric softener, that residue remains behind.  Even though the tags may say arc flash rated, the material is now highly flammable.

Most fire-resistant materials go through a chemical application process to make them arc flash rated.  That chemical coating wears away after being washed, so it is important to check the manufacturer’s documentation for how many washes the fire-resistant coating will last.  Once the material has been washed that many times, it is no longer arc flash rated.

If this is a concern with work in areas where there is exposure to grease, oil, etc., and where arc flash rated clothing is required, engineered arc flash rated clothing are a better option.  These can be washed as many times as needed to remove spills that compromise the fire-resistance of the material and will never lose their fire-resistance.

Remember, purchasing arc flash PPE and training employees to use it properly is only two-thirds of the equation.  The final third is ensuring that the PPE is maintained and cared for so that it does not create a greater risk for the employee.  Inspect all PPE, including clothing, before use.

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