Arc flash does not appear to be a widely recognised, not to mention a fully understood hazard that leads to electrical injuries among employers in Ireland. It is hardly surprising then that it is so often inadequately controlled. Undoubtedly, this is in part due to the fact that the only reference to ‘electrical arcing’ in Irish Health and Safety legislation is in the definition of ‘danger’ contained in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Regulations 2007 (S.I.299) Part 3: Electricity, which includes risk of personal injury from ‘electrical explosion or arcing’.
However, it is a very real hazard in most workplaces, and needs to be identified as such, analysed, and the associated risks controlled. This is a legal requirement, under the general duty of the employer and the duty with regard to risk assessment in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act.
Based on S.I.299: ‘work on or near live conductors may be permitted in exceptional circumstances’. Any ‘live’ work, switching or racking in/out of breakers can result in electric shock and burns sustained at the point of accidental electrical contact, or due to arcing from LV or HV conductors.
Research carried out in the United States over 30 years ago indicates that over 70% of electrical injuries result from arc flash rather than from shock The Other Electrical Hazard: Electric Arc Blast Burns’1 by Dr. Ralph Lee. In my opinion appropriate changes in Irish legislation need to be introduced to ensure Irish employers recognise the necessity of identifying arc flash hazard, and implementing controls to reduce the risk to employees.
During my career I have noticed that many of the engineers in Irish industrial plants are aware of arc flash hazard and recognise it as a major risk across their sites. Unfortunately due to lack of transparent regulations, which should force the employer to address this type of hazard, it is very difficult for them to obtain funds to carry out appropriate calculations and put safety programs in place.
Awareness is increasing in the pharmaceutical industry, where safety was always treated as priority. Many other business sectors don’t pay any attention to this aspect of safety, unless an arc flash accident that leads to electrical injuries has occurred. It is widely known that corporations originating from United States apply American quality and safety standards at their Irish plants, as the reinforcement to the European regulations. Electrical safety, and especially arc flash hazard assessment, is one of their concerns.
The introduction of standards such as IEEE1584 and NFPA70E changed the way people perceive electrical safety in the prevention of electrical injuries at some Irish industrial plants. These two standards were developed in United States as guides for performing arc flash hazard calculations. They outline how to carry out basic arc flash hazard risk assessment and recommend appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), based on the outcome of the calculation, task type and activity. In my view the American Standards should be used as guide to improve Irish standards, due to the fact that arc flash hazard was widely addressed on that continent many years ago and, the experience and knowledge of the problem is much more extensive there than in Europe.
I think that arc flash hazard assessment could become common, if more transparent legislation was in place. Most of the industrial plants carry out protection coordination as standard, to increase the reliability of their processes. With use of appropriate software, arc flash hazard calculations could be carried out as an addition to protection coordination at a minimal expense. Once the calculations are available, an internal process (carried out by health and safety department) can be initiated, to ensure that appropriate risk assessment and safe practices are incorporated and PPE appropriate for the task is available.
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Michal Sopocko is Engineering Manager with Premium Power and a chartered member of the Institute of Engineers of Ireland. He holds a Masters degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Poznan University of Technology and has worked on a number of arc flash hazard and protection studies on industrial sites. A version of this article previously appeared in Engineers Ireland Journal. Premium Power designs and delivers safe and resilient electrical systems.