There’s always been a lot of talk about protective clothing in arc flash situations. What are the limitations of safety apparel? Is a specific garment offering a worker the best protection possible? Why aren’t my workers wearing the safety equipment they should? How can I improve compliance?
Let’s dive right in and see if we can answer some of those questions for you.
Arc Flash 101
Let’s briefly review. An arc flash is caused by an arcing fault. In other words, it’s an electrical explosion due to a rapid release of energy. It can be due to breaks or gaps in insulation, equipment failure, or a dusty conductor. Regardless of the cause, they’re dangerous. They can result in severe body burns, ignited clothing, damage to eyesight, hearing loss, and even death.
Just look at some of the potential outcomes of an arc flash incident:
- Can result in a cataclysmic explosion
- Pressures of up to 1,000 pounds per square foot
- Projectiles can exceed speeds of 700 mph
- Temperatures can reach over 30,000°F
- Sound pressure can exceed 160 dB
Electrical, maintenance, and utility workers are exposed to potential arc flash situations every day. And some of these situations could prove deadly in a matter of seconds. Providing them with the safety equipment they need to stay safe is no-brainer. But, what happens when your workers aren’t wearing the arc flash protection you’ve provided?
Let’s explore the most common arc flash clothing complaints.
1. Uncomfortable and Bulky AR Clothing
The most important thing a worker can do is protect themselves from the hazards of the job. The problem is that many workers find their PPE too uncomfortable, too hot, or too constricting. In a 2012 survey, 82% of safety professionals reported that they witnessed workers not wearing PPE in dangerous situations.
Non-compliance leaves workers at risk of injury and death. And it affects the company’s bottom line due to burns that result in hospitalization costs over $120,000 each!
Further, non-compliance leaves companies at risk for serious OSHA violations and fines. In fact, burns are the second most costly workers’ compensation claim. When it comes to worker safety and compliance, those numbers are troubling.
Increase Comfort and Compliance with Advanced Fabric Technology
Workers need protective solutions that exceed risk calculations. Traditionally, this meant hot and heavy garments. But today’s industrial workforce is demands solutions that protect while still being easy and comfortable to wear. This has sparked innovative developments in arc-rated (AR) fabric technology geared towards increasing wearer comfort without sacrificing protection.
Inherently flame-resistant fibers such as OPF (AKA Carbon) offer high levels of protection that don’t require extra bulk. They also don’t require weight to be added to the finished fabric. The secret behind OPF is its superior thermal insulation which means that it doesn’t allow heat to pass through to the skin, reducing the severity of burn injuries and working to keep the wearer cool. The carbonized shell around OPF fibers also provides a barrier that does not easily ignite and offers excellent self-extinguishing properties. This technology allows OPF-based fabrics to be soft and flexible, yet highly protective.
In the case of TECGEN®, an OPF based technology, the fabric is engineered to let out up to 15% more heat than other fabrics, helping workers stay cool and comfortable. The combination of an enhanced thermal barrier, breathability, and moisture wicking makes it the perfect material to protect today’s industrial workers.
Why is that important? End-users want a comfortable garment that’s lightweight, breathable, moisture-wicking and protective. Providing garments that workers want to wear is the key to increasing worker compliance with PPE requirements. Workers who wear the appropriate PPE have a reduced risk for injury in the event of arc flash.
Our workforce is exposed to dangerous and uncomfortable situations almost every day. Wearing heavy and bulky safety apparel in these conditions doesn’t help. And it often leads to dangerous side effects such as heat stress, exhaustion, and fatigue.
Providing workers with comfortable PPE choices not only keeps them safer, it helps keep their head in the game. Workers need to stay focused. Human error is often the root cause of an arc flash incident. In fact, OSHA not only recognizes heat-related illness as a contributing factor to accidents, but they also link the use of bulky PPE to an increased risk of heat-related illness.
Our workforce has enough to worry about. They don’t need to be distracted by uncomfortable safety garments.
2. Poor Visibility in Low Light Applications
We’re all familiar with the green legacy arc shields – the darker the lens, the higher the Arc Thermal Performance Value (ATPV). They are very effective at protecting against arc flash, but carry some serious limitations.
Many work environments don’t have the best lighting to begin with. Because they are so dark, legacy arc shields tend to decrease visibility in already low-visibility conditions. This becomes even more dangerous when working with electrical wires or precision work. In these applications, users need to be able to differentiate between colors. Too often, workers may feel compelled remove their faceshields just to complete their work.
Clearer Vision for Today’s Workforce
Arc-rated faceshields are now available in a virtually colorless shade that does not distort color at all. Ideal shields should mimic the eye’s natural ability to perceive color. When faceshields don’t have to rely on green dyes to absorb infrared light, there's no danger in misinterpreting colors in hazardous situations.
Traditionally, faceshields featured a solid chin cup, which often made it difficult for workers to perform tasks when looking down. This inefficiency could lead to workers removing or improperly wearing their faceshield just to see what they’re doing. Newer technology allows for transparent chin cups that provide a larger field of vision so the wearer can work safely and efficiently.
In industrial applications, faceshields must meet ANSI/ISEA Z87.1-2015 for impact. Faceshields with a Z87+ rating have exceeded the standard medium energy requirement and have been rated for high speed impact. A high speed impact rating provides workers with increased protection from potential projectiles that could occur during an arc flash incident. Having a proper anti-fogging coating on the lenses of safety glasses or arc flash shields is another feature that increases functionality. New and improved coatings are available on both sides of the lens which can increase visibility and safety in a variety of conditions. So, workers can have clear, unobstructed vision for the work that they perform.
A worker should never remove their safety equipment in order to properly do their job. The solution is to provide equipment that works in a variety of environments to help prevent the potential hazards that arise from non-compliance.
3. Lack of Arc-Rated Protective Equipment on Site
Every time workers don’t have access to the arc flash suits and accessories they need, they expose themselves to unnecessary risk. Arc flash injuries send 2,000 workers to the hospital every year. Four hundred of those injured won’t survive. Those are some shocking numbers. What’s even more shocking is that these injuries are often preventable.
Many times the workers that were injured weren’t wearing arc-rated PPE when the incident occurred.
Maybe their arc flash garments were being used by another employee. Maybe their arc-rated clothing had been misplaced. Or, maybe their AR safety gear wasn’t even on site. There are many reasons why workers might not have been using their PPE. None of those reasons matter when a worker sustains life-threatening injuries that could have been avoided.
Arc Flash Protection Where Workers Need It Most
It’s important that workers have easy access to the protection they need. To do that, you have to make it as simple as possible. Arc flash kits are a handy way to contain all the necessary items for a worker’s full body protection. Having pre-packed kits on site minimizes confusion when workers must choose their PPE – especially when the kits are task specific.
Workers may only need flame-resistant arc protection for short periods of time. That’s another example of when arc flash kits can be a very convenient solution. They can be packed in a PPE bag that keeps everything together and stored outside an arc flash boundary, in a tool box, or in their work truck. Workers can just grab what they need before entering a hazardous area. This way, workers never have to find themselves without the important safety gear they need.
Pro Tip: For the highest level of protection, it’s recommended that arc flash suits are worn over a worker’s FR/AR daily wear garments.
Safety Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
No two jobs or workers are the same. Workers are more likely to wear their arc-rated safety gear when they can choose the protection that best suits their needs. The ability to customize an arc flash kit for a specific level of protection or job task allows workers to have the specific equipment they need to safely complete the task at hand.
For instance, some workers may prefer to wear coveralls rather than a coat and leggings. Some require a balaclava under their faceshield or helmet. Some workers may require voltage gloves because they are working on live electrical equipment.
Bonus – workers are often more confident and more productive when they have the tools they need for success.
If you’re looking for ways to increase compliance and improve worker safety, start by listening to your employee’s concerns. Ask workers why they aren’t wearing their arc-rated gear. Most often you’ll find that it usually comes down to comfort, functionality, and availability of their current safety apparel.
Offer workers options that solve their most common PPE complaints and watch compliance and safety improve dramatically.
If you find yourself lost and don’t have all the answers – just ask for help.
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