This is the third post in a four-part series exploring factors that could contribute to an arc flash incident, based on the experience of arc flash survivor and safety advocate, Brandon Schroeder.
In the first two posts in the series, we explored behavioral and company culture-related factors that could lead to an arc flash incident. Now, we’ll take a look at how the type of safety apparel your company provides you to perform hazardous work could lead to lack of compliance and serious injury.
By now, you know the story—Brandon Schroeder was asked to perform the simple task of relocating an electrical cord inside of an energized panel, and he made a number of calculations before deciding to do the work without proper protection:
He was 30 minutes from the end of his workday
He could not shut off the power because there was no main breaker on the panel
He did not have his arc flash suit in his vehicle
He was not wearing arc-rated flame resistant (AR) clothing
Brandon’s company had chosen to purchase arc flash suits, or task-based AR, for their employees. While this is a step in the right direction, providing task-based AR is not necessarily equal to a daily wear program. In Brandon’s case, the company had purchased ten arc flash suits for sixty employees. Many companies decide that because energized work will not necessarily be done on a regular basis, employees will not need daily wear AR and can simply don a suit if they need to do work energized. In addition, making a one-time bulk purchase of task-based AR seems more cost-effective than requiring employees to work in daily wear AR clothing. However, there are a few holes in this logic, exemplified by Brandon’s near-fatal accident—which could have been prevented if he didn’t have to consider whether he wanted to track down an arc flash suit to put on before performing a quick maintenance task.
Would you want to share your coworker’s gym clothes? If you answered no, then you wouldn’t want to share an arc flash suit. Often made from materials that don’t breathe well, the suits quickly become dirty, sweaty, and smelly. The result? “People will do whatever they can to get out of [wearing the suits]”, says Brandon.
If all the suits are being used by others, where does that leave you? It’s just simple math that if there are ten suits and more than ten people with energized tasks to do in a day, someone will go without. And, with a culture that values productivity over safety, it’s not often that a supervisor will approve waiting to perform a task, especially if it’s the tail end of the day or on a project that’s close to completion.
The long-term costs of an arc flash incident are exponentially higher than providing employees with daily wear AR clothing. An injury like Brandon’s can be enormously expensive, aside from the physical and emotional toll it takes on the worker him or herself. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. A drastic increase in insurance rates – if you can even get insurance at all after an accident. The potential loss of business when companies decide they don’t want to hire electricians with a higher than average “mod rate.” When you add it all up, AR daily wear begins to look a lot more economical, doesn’t it? Brandon estimates the cost of his injury at $300,000. Aside from hospital bills and lost work, his company’s insurance rates also increased after the accident. A common allowance for AR daily wear is $400—making Brandon’s accident over 800 times more expensive than a year’s worth of AR!
Even if employees wear task-based AR, safety challenges remain. If employees are wearing heavy arc flash suits, it can be impossible for companies to know if they are wearing synthetic, melt-able fibers underneath—unless your supervisors are also the “underwear police.” In addition, having to layer regular clothing under a heavy arc flash suit can lead to dangerous heat stress, a hazard that is getting more and more attention from OSHA and NIOSH.
While providing task-based AR is better than nothing, Brandon Schroeder is a walking reminder that providing employees with daily wear AR is a solution that carries the least possibility for error and injury on the job. Stay tuned for the last post in our series, exploring the benefits of a daily wear AR program and why more and more companies are choosing not to rely on task-based AR for protection.
To learn more about Brandon Schroeder’s experience, visit his company website, Believe in Safety, and look out for future posts on preventative steps you can take to avoid serious injuries on the job.