As the dangers of arc flash have become better known, the market for arc-rated (AR) clothing has grown. Unlike earlier offerings, many of today’s garments can be comfortable to wear on a daily basis. However, ensuring this clothing is used as it should be and retains its protective properties requires both employer commitment and employee training with follow-ups to ensure that safety remains a priority for workers in the field.
With the enormous amount of energy they release, arc flash incidents present multiple dangers to anyone within the hazard zone, but burn injuries rank at the top of the list. Requirements set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Standard 70E address such burn risks by establishing the kinds of clothing workers within a defined hazard zone must wear.
The OSHA requirements and NFPA guidelines are meant to help prevent workers from suffering more than second-degree burns. This level of protection is remarkable, considering that arc flash temperatures can reach 30,000°F and that clothing designed for the lowest hazard levels can look and feel like everyday sportswear. This level of comfort hasn’t always been the rule. Just a couple decades ago, safety garments were bulky and hot with no real guarantee of protection.
“When I first started in 1994, there were about seven fabrics on the market, and none of them had arc ratings; the uptick has been quite dramatic,” said Hugh Hoagland, founder of ArcWear, a Louisville, Ky.-based firm specializing in arc flash testing of AR fabrics and clothing. “The ability to tweak it to particular values was nonexistent.”
Today, contractors have plenty of clothing options to choose from, many from manufacturers that already are familiar to construction and utility workers. However, not all workers are as aware as they should be of the need to look for an AR label when pulling the day’s workgear out of the closet.
“It’s a mixed bag of tricks out there,” Hoagland said, adding that electrical pros need to be wearing AR clothing, even in routine tasks. He said he has witnessed electricians working on active wires without any of the protection NFPA 70E requires.
“There’s a huge liability out there to ... contractors, and they don’t know it,” he said.
According to safety consultant Jon Wallace, sometimes workers don’t know that AR clothing is not the same as flame-rated clothing.
“You can get clothing that would be flame-resistant for other applications,” he said, noting the use of such garments in chemical and petroleum-processing plants. “But that doesn’t mean it would be appropriate for electrical applications.”
Raising worker awareness
Wallace, who consults and leads training sessions on a range of workplace safety issues across the United States, said he has seen an increase over time in awareness of arc flash injury-prevention strategies.
In the early 2000s, he used to get one or two calls per month regarding questions related to arc flash protective clothing—a number that now is up to two to three calls per week. Similarly, in 2000, he estimated maybe 10 percent of electrical companies were compliant with then-current personal protective equipment (PPE) regulations.
“Now, I’d say it’s closer to 50 percent compliant,” he said. He sees obstacles in execution for that lagging 50 percent.
You can get clothing that would be flame-resistant for other applications. But that doesn't mean it would be appropriate for electrical applications.
—Jon Wallace, safety consultant
He noted he has seen situations where safety clothing is considered something separate and, perhaps, kept in a bag at the work site, ignored by workers who see wearing it as a chore.
“An electrical worker may be doing energized work four to five times a day,” he said. “One of the big challenges I have is convincing companies that employees should be wearing the clothing on a daily basis.”
Understanding exactly what is required might be part of the problem. Some regulations have changed recently, and different regulatory language and guidance can apply for electrical workers doing utility work and those working on the customer side of a service connection. For electric-utility workers, OSHA’s regulation 1910.269 was updated in April 2014 with language that took effect in August 2015 reclassifying employee clothing as PPE. Therefore, for those workers, supplying AR clothing is the employer’s responsibility.
For nonutility electrical workers, NFPA 70E applies with essentially the same requirements. Though calculation methodologies might differ between the two documents, OSHA accepts NFPA 70E’s tables, so the end requirements align with each other. Tables in the 2015 version of this standard outline equipment types and their related level of PPE.
Managing a PPE program
The bottom line is employers are required to supply their workers with all levels of PPE, including the everyday, clothing-style garments necessary for work in PPE levels 1 and 2 environments and flash suits and balaclavas needed in more hazardous equipment zones. For larger contracting firms, which might already be providing their workers with company-branded clothing as an image enhancer, this new requirement is less of a problem.
“Most employers are providing the uniform,” Hoagland said. “[Workers] typically are wearing a uniform that’s compliant to PPE level 1 or 2, and they’re adding a flash suit to it.”
But, for smaller companies, the need to provide such garments might be a new responsibility. Options for meeting this requirement include leasing clothing through an industrial laundry service or setting up a purchase program and requiring workers to launder PPE garments on their own. Each choice comes with benefits and tradeoffs.
“A lot of my clients use a uniform service that provides, maybe, 10 garments,” Wallace said.
These services supply the garments, laundering and delivery, and are responsible for ongoing maintenance, including minor repairs that don’t compromise the clothing’s arc rating. The fact these companies know how to handle specialized garments can be a big plus.
“Even if you have a button that comes off, that needs to be replaced with arc-rated thread,” he said.
The assurance that clothing is being properly maintained and retired when necessary can be important to electrical managers. However, Hoagland said such uniform services aren’t always convenient, depending on where companies are located and how its workers manage their assignments.
“Industrial laundries work out well in large cities,” he said. “But they don’t work so well in rural areas or if you work from home and travel.”
He added that the monthly charge for this service—essentially, a lease payment—can become more expensive overtime than a purchase program that gives each employee an annual uniform budget and access to an online catalog. However, in employee purchase arrangements, the employees are responsible for laundering the garments at home, and they will need some training to ensure they follow proper washing procedures.
At the top of the list of prohibited laundering practices is the use of bleach—even as part of a detergent product—and fabric softener. Over time, bleach can break down an AR fabric’s strength, while fabric softeners can contain fats that build up and make a fabric more likely to ignite. In both cases, the garment might appear perfectly intact, but actually it could be placing an employee in danger.
“You could significantly reduce the fire resistance, but the garment would still look pretty good,” Hoagland said. “You do have to train your workers to make sure they understand [to use] no chlorine bleach and no fabric softeners.”
Making sure these specialized care instructions are understood is even more important, as AR garments have become almost indistinguishable from all of the other dirty clothes in the household hamper. Wallace suggests workers who launder their own protective clothing be given a summary of the ASTM International Standard F2757-09, “Standard Guide for Home Laundering Care and Maintenance of Flame, Thermal and Arc Resistant Clothing,” that they can post in their laundry rooms to keep appropriate care instructions close at hand.
Training is critical
Both Hoagland and Wallace stress the importance of incorporating a discussion of AR clothing into a formalized safety-training program. Getting electrical workers to understand the importance of safety clothing can be a challenge. This is especially true for old-timers who might be skeptical of the need for protection for tasks they have been doing for decades.
Wallace said he often starts his arc-safety training classes by asking for a show of hands of those who have personal experience, or knowledge of someone who has had personal experience, with the dangers arc flash incidents can pose.
“In only a handful of classes have I not had at least one student say they’ve had experience,” he said.
Wallace shows videos of actual and staged arc flash incidents. The combination of fellow students recounting their own arc flash encounters with the visual evidence of the energy such events can release eventually starts to make an impact.
“I’ve had people who’ve seemed very resistant, and halfway through the class, it has seemed like they have buy-in,” he said.
Making sure training is followed
In addition to thorough training, Hoagland is a big proponent of audited safety programs to provide additional assurance that PPE policies are followed in the field. Neither NFPA nor OSHA requires any documentation that employers are monitoring their employees’ use of PPE. However, establishing an ongoing program to ensure workers are continuing to put training lessons into practice could both lessen the chance of injuries and provide some legal protection if an accident did occur.
“A good company would go out and watch them at work, and you’d document it annually every year with each worker,” he said. Workers who evidence a lax attitude toward safety should be targeted for retraining. “If you’re not doing audits and documenting those audits, you really don’t have any proof, so auditing is the most important thing after training.”