In recent years, an increased number of workplace injuries prompted changes to arc flash personal protective equipment clothing ratings by the National Fire Protection Association. The standards for arc rated clothing standards had not kept pace with increased heavy energy reliance in the workplace and developments in electrical design. But new guidance has emerged in 2021 regarding arc flash rated clothing. Employers are now tasked with assessing risk and ensuring workers have the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to maximize safety. These newly minted regulations will put pressure on companies to invest in certified disposable products and to maintain a robust supply.

What is Arc Flash & What are the Dangers?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines arc flash as a phenomenon that occurs when a high electrical current diverges from an anticipated path and surges through the air. The electrical pulse typically connects with an unintended object or person. When workers are struck by arc flash, the consequences can be both violent and severe. These rank among the typical results of an abrupt arc flash that can have debilitating consequences.

  • Severe Burns to Skin or Non-Fire Rated Clothing
  • Airborne Sprays of Molten Metal
  • Pressure Blasts Reaching 2,000 Pounds Per Square Foot
  • Sonic Blasts Reaching 140 Decibels
  • Heat Surges Reaching 35,000 Degrees

Arc flash incidents tend to be unpredictable. They can occur due to unforeseen elements such as interfering dust particles, moisture, and common human error such as dropping a tool. Industry reports indicate that approximately 30,000 arc flash incidents occur every year. Workplace injury estimates point to 7,000 burns, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 400 people die from arc flash annually.

Safety experts also concluded that attempts at tracking arc flash-related accidents prove allusive in many cases. Existing data typically undercounts injuries, and workers sometimes fail to report burns or injuries unless they require medical treatment and care. Despite a lack of precision data, few could argue that people without proper equipment were in harm's way.

How Was Arc Flash PPE Categorized Before 2015?

Before updating the arc flash guidance in 2015, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) allowed employers and workers to determine their level of risk and wear the appropriate level of PPE. This pre-2015 standard considered minimum arc rating calculations and assigned one of four levels of Fire-Resistant Hazardous Risk Categories (HRC). These seemingly loose and informal HRC levels called for the following.

  • HRC 1: One layer of Fire Rated pants, shirt, and coveralls at an arc rating consistent with 4 cal/cm.
  • HRC 2: Cotton underwear plus one layer of Fire Rated shirt, pants, and coveralls consistent with 8 cal/cm2.
  • HRC 3: Cotton underwear plus a Fire Rated shirt, pants, and coveralls rated at 25 cal/cm2.
  • HRC 4: Cotton underwear plus a Fire Rated shirt, pants, plus a multi-flash suit rated for 40 cal/cm2.

That was updated in 2015 with the NFPA 70E 2015 categories. The following outlines the 2015 HRC thresholds and arc flash PPE categories.

  • HRC 1: Workers must wear arc-rated clothing that may include long-sleeve shirts, pants, coveralls, face shields, hoods, safety glasses, goggles, heavy-duty leather gloves, leather footwear, hard hats, and ear protection, among others, “As Needed.” The PPE must achieve a technical rating of 4 cal/cm.
  • HRC 2: This somewhat heightened level reiterates HRC 1, but requires the PPE to meet an arc-rating of 8 cal/cm2.
  • HRC 3: The PPE for this level must meet an arc-rating of 25 cal/cm2. Although many of the same clothing articles, such as coveralls, long-sleeve shirts, and gloves, are identified, they are no longer deemed “As Needed.” HRC 3 calls PPE “As Required” due to heightened risk.
  • HRC 4: This level requires that all “as required” PPE be rated for 40 cal/cm2 arc flash potential.

The NFPA 70E 2015 edition of the Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace also implemented requirements surrounding electrical dangers. Perhaps the most substantive change involved adding measures that called for assessing the likelihood that arc flash injury could occur. Additional policy-level mandates were also brought to the table in 2015 to curb the seeming lack of accountability stemming from the pre-2015 standards. After the 2015 revision, the following protective protocols went into effect that many deem HRC 0.

  • Workers are required to keep pants and shirts tucked at all times.
  • Long-sleeve shirts and coveralls are required to be secured at the neck and wrists.
  • An arc-rated Balaclava or Hood has now been mandated anywhere the potential exposure to energy exceeded 1.2 cal/cm2.
  • Undergarments must be comprised of natural materials that cannot melt when exposed to high heat.
  • Some industry professionals mistakenly state that no HRC 0 exists. These commonsense measures to avoid accidents or injury are precisely what category zero policies typically entail.

The thought leadership behind the 2015 revisions established a more robust understanding of arc flash dangers. And the proactive measures to establish safety methods such as ending loose cuffs and shirts helped make workers more conscious about the link between protective clothing and workplace injury. Many of these were carried over to the 2021 update. The recent changes being hailed as NFPA 70E 2021 take significant strides in driving home the idea that protective clothing can prevent injury and death in some cases.

Critical NFPA 70E 2021 Changes Workers Need to Know

The 2015 updates changed perceptions about the relationship between arc flash and PPE. But as the old saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.” The millions of people who work with high-voltage electricity every day can become complacent. People simply get used to being in close proximity without injury, and the risk starts to become less apparent or desensitized. Workers complete tasks, and thoughts about untucked shirts or dust particles kicking up seem inconsequential until it’s too late.

That’s why the NFPA 70E 2021 updates stand as a welcome reminder that arc flash continues to cause hospitalizations and workplace fatalities year over year. Officials who crafted the 2021 safety measures reportedly had two strategies in mind. They wanted to improve clarity about the more technical measures, and they wanted to make the guidelines more practical.

The 2021 NFPA 70E measure includes the following changes worth considering.

  • General Requirements and Logical Order: Workers would be well-served to review Article 110, also known as “The General Requirements for Electrical Safety-Related Work Practices.” This section has been revised so that it creates a logical progression of how PPE and safety measures mesh, among other electrical safety practices. It also inserts a new 110.5(K) subsection that tasks employers with developing an “electrically safe work condition policy.” If the relationship between being mindful about safety and lower injuries was the goal, this measure takes another step forward.
  • Arc-resistant switchgear: Tables 130.5(C) and 130.7(C)(15)(a) changed to arc-resistant equipment to address the use of other types of arc-resistant equipment commonly used.
  • Focus on Capacitors: The 2021 guidance created Article 360 as a “Safety-Related Requirements for Capacitors” section. This places a laser focus on the stored energy in types of machinery such as conveyors and heating systems. One of the salient points Article 360 brings to the surface is that capacitor systems typically house significant power even when they are turned off. Some capacitors are strategically used as energy storage. Going forward, a risk assessment must be performed to minimize unnecessary accidents.
  • Arc Flash Likelihood and Calculation Methods: The first pre-2015 and even the 2015 arc flash PPE requirements chart left people in the dark about the potential for an incident. Because the early tables were largely used in a non-preventative fashion, the 2021 edition provides a significant update about the use of PPE. This new table establishes the idea that each task and environment carry with it a tangible arc flash risk. The upgraded table now puts forward 30 ways to determine the likelihood of an arc flash. Furthermore, Incident Energy and Arc Flash Boundary Calculation Methods were revised to reference IEEE-1584-2018 as a method of calculation.

It’s essential for the protection of workers to understand that NFPA 70E training ranks among the many safety regulations that lack the force of law, with the sole exception of people who work for the Department of Energy. The existence of incremental updates and more determined safety measures highlights the fact that arc flash represents a clear and present danger. With upwards of 400 work-related fatalities each year, OSHA has largely adopted the NFPA 70E as the definitive guidance regarding arc flash safety and prevention.

The latest edition now tasks employers with putting forward an additional electrical safety policy that supports educating boots-on-the-ground workers about the best personal protective equipment to leverage when at risk.

International Enviroguard produces an industry-leading line of personal protective equipment that meets or exceeds safety standards. The PyroGuard disposable coverall product lines, for example, deliver exemplary fire-resistant protection while meeting NFPA requirements. The advanced design already accounts for the “HRC 0” protocols that require wrists and necklines to be fully secured.

Employers can anticipate a growing need for a PPE stockpile as the latest guidance call for heightened protections. International Enviroguard offers cost-effective solutions to workplace safety and helps companies comply with evolving regulations.

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