Arc flashes are some of the most deadly electrical incidents within industry. While arc flashes are entirely preventable when appropriate preventative measures are in place, an average of 30,000 arc flash incidents still occur every year. A 2007 estimate placed the occurrence of these arc flashes at 5 to 10 events per day within the United States alone. Almost all of these events result in injuries to employees, some of which can be deadly.
To better understand the risks and costs of arc flashes, we’ve compiled numerous arc flash statistics and electric shock statistics from across the industry to explain the dangers of arc flashes in hard data.
Causes of Arc Flashes
Arc flashes can be caused by even the smallest error. Anything from a misplaced tool to a loose rodent in the work area can set one off by decreasing the distance between two energized components. This allows for a jump of energy to occur between the two components, creating the arc flash. Though equipment failure or other circumstances can bring about these flashes, over two-thirds of all arc flashes are the result of worker error. In most cases, the worker simply failed to make sure the equipment was properly de-energized.
Dangers of Arc Flashes
Arc flashes are, in essence, dangerous releases of electrical energy that ionize the surrounding air. This energizing of the air results in the emission of thermal and acoustical energy, along with a pressure wave and debris. The size and energy of an electric arc flash varies widely depending on the amperage, voltage and closure time of the event, but any arc flash has the potential to cause serious damage to surrounding people and property.
In extreme cases, arc flashes can reach temperatures greater than 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit, four times hotter than the surface of the sun. That’s almost 150 times greater than the heat needed to cause a third-degree burn and 40 times greater than the heat needed to set clothing ablaze. A worker only needs to stand 10 feet away from such a blast to sustain serious burns, but workers even 20 feet away from the blast face danger in the form of heated projectiles, flames and pressure changes. If a worker in the area is missing any piece of protective gear, they risk serious injury and, in extreme cases, death.
In addition to the heat, arc flashes produce extreme pressure changes. This pressure change is due to the extreme temperature produced by the flash, which causes the surrounding air to expand. The expanding air creates a change in pressure that manifests in a wave. These pressure waves created by arc flashes can produce forces greater than 2,000 pounds per square foot. That’s enough pressure to knock people off their feet, break bones and burst ear drums, especially if a victim isn’t wearing proper protective gear.
Health Effects of Arc Flashes
The results of these incredible blasts of heat and pressure can be devastating to the health of anyone unlucky enough to be standing nearby. A 2009 study concluded that injuries from arc flashes and other related electrical incidents resulted in a wide variety of injuries, ranging in severity from moderate to severe, with the most severe cases resulting in death. Over forty-eight percent of these injuries were electric shocks, 19.3 percent were burns and 31.9 percent were strains, sprains, lacerations, fractures or hearing or vision loss.
Though not the most common of injuries, burn injuries are the most lethal, with 80 percent of arc flash fatalities resulting from burns, not shocks. Serious burns occur on victims standing 10 feet away from the blast or less. Arc flashes result in over 7,000 burn injuries per year, ranging from first to fourth degree burns. Of those injured, over 2,000 individuals per year had to visit burn centers for hospitalization and over 400 died from their injuries or subsequent infections. That number averages out to an astonishing 1 to 2 deaths per day from burn-related arc flash incidents.
Even more upsetting is the fact that these numbers are low estimates – many hospitals don’t track the source of a burn injury when the patient does not require the attention of a burn unit, and burn units are only required for victims with second, third and fourth degree burns covering more than half of the body.
The effects of arc flashes don’t end at the physical. Shocks, burns and other injuries associated with arc flash-related injuries can result in severe psychological and neurological trauma, altering the victim’s life for years to come. Behavioral changes, memory and attention issues and increased irritability and aggression are all potential neurological side-effects following a shock-related injury. Even a low-voltage injury can bring about such neurological issues, which are often permanent but treatable. Additionally, many workers may develop anxiety or symptoms of PTSD following a workplace injury, which can take years of therapy to manage properly.
In total, the dangers and effects of arc flashes make them one of the most dangerous hazards within industry, contributing significantly to the number of workplace deaths associated with electrical equipment and the electrical industry.
Costs of Arc Flashes
One of the most critical things employers must understand about arc flashes, besides the danger they pose to their employees’ health, is how much a single arc flash can cost their business. These costs are both direct and indirect, direct costs including workers’ compensation payments, medical expenditures and legal expenses, while indirect costs include property damage and repair, employee time off and replacement, lost productivity, fines due to workplace safety violations and decreases in employee morale. While direct costs are easier to calculate with concrete data, indirect costs are equally as expensive, often matching the direct costs.
To better understand these costs, we’ve broken down the cost of an arc flash incident into the following categories:
- Medical Costs: Much of the cost of hospitalization depends on the extent of the burn. On average, burn treatment takes 1.5 days of hospitalization per percentage of the body burned, with each day of hospitalization costing at least $18,000. Usually, injured employees are hospitalized for around 19 days following an arc flash injury, which places the total hospitalization cost around $350,000, minimum. This, however, is an extremely conservative estimate. Most arc flash injuries end up costing companies an average of $1.5 million for medical costs alone.
- Compensatory Costs: The average employee injured by an arc flash must take around 8 to 12 months off work, but the injuries may be so severe that they are permanently or semi-permanently disabled. In such cases, workers often claim disability from their employer, resulting in them receiving wage replacement via workers’ compensation benefits. In 2014, the average injured employee claimed around $57,000 in workers’ compensation following an injury, though the amount varied widely depending on the period of disability.
- Legal Costs: The average litigation cost to a company after experiencing an arc flash incident totals around $10 to $15 million on average. While some legal costs are expected following a serious incident, especially one resulting in death, these costs multiply depending on the number of people affected and how closely the company followed safety regulations.
- Lost Production: Following an arc flash incident, the repair costs and needed analyses can close down part, if not all, of a facility for a day or more. Even when production starts again, the psychological impact of the incident can have lasting effects on otherwise uninjured employees, including depression and decreased morale. These psychological factors can negatively impact their efficiency at work.
Then there is the issue of missing employees. A 2008 study concluded that 57.5% of low-voltage and flash injury patients attempt to return to work an average of 107.7 days after their injury, but less than a third successfully returned 59.38 days after the injury. Most injured employees ended up taking more time off than they expected due to continuing psychological, neurological and musculoskeletal problems. That’s a minimum of two months a company goes without one of its trained workers.
If the company decides not to hire a new employee, production can decrease significantly due to the missing individual. If the company hires a new employee to replace the injured employee, however, production still suffers during the employee’s training period, and they have to contend with costs associated with hiring and training the new employee. The company will also have to decide how to handle the situation once the injured individual returns to work.
- Property Damage Costs: Arc flashes can do serious damage to computer equipment, building structures and other parts of the facility. Following an incident, any damaged equipment or structures must be repaired as soon as possible in order to restart production. These costs vary widely depending on the extent of the damage and the cost of the equipment involved.
- OSHA Fines: Violating OSHA regulations comes with costs of its own. If a company violates any OSHA regulations, fines can reach up to $12,600 per violation. Repeat offenders can pay up to ten times that much per violation. Violating posting requirements or failing to comply with an issued citation can cost up to $12,600 per day. Some charges even come with jail time. The death of an employee resulting from a failure to comply with OSHA regulations incurs fees of up to $10,000 and jail time up to six months, with a second conviction doubling those consequences.
These costs can cost a company millions of dollars per incident, and can potentially bankrupt a smaller company with less capital to contribute to the costs, so extensive prevention measures are crucial. In a conservative estimate in 2014, OSHA announced that each nonfatal injury prevented saved companies an estimated $62,500 in total costs. Compared to that cost, preventative measures like proper protective equipment, equipment labeling and employee training cost hardly anything.
Arc Flash Safety and Prevention
Even the smallest mistake or lapse in compliance can result in an arc flash. In 2007, reports indicated that around 73 percent of all arc flash incidents occurred within organizations and facilities with safety practices rated as average or good. Despite their good practices, something slipped through the cracks.
Much of the problem has to do with improper compliance with regulatory provisions like NFPA 70E, which is a set of regulations guiding safety practices to handle and prevent arc flashes. These regulations cover everything from the amount of protective gear workers wear to the training they receive and the content of arc flash warning labels within a work area. Many workers across industry hold faith in the efficacy of the regulations. In 2007, a poll of workers injured or affected by electrical accidents overwhelmingly supported the idea that improved compliance with NFPA 70E would have prevented the incident in which they were involved. Insufficient training, improper arc flash analyses and improper protective gear are all examples of improper NFPA 70E compliance.
Personal protective equipment, also referred to as PPE, is one of the most important measures for employees because it acts as a final barrier to injury in the event of an arc flash. The only problem is that employees and employers alike often mishandle, underestimate or ignore the equipment.
In a 2009 study of construction workers, nearly 58 percent of participants were reluctant to wear safety gear, and 53 percent reported seeing coworkers without proper protective equipment. Over a quarter of respondents in the aforementioned construction worker study cited improper training as a reason they failed to wear their protective equipment, while a 1990 poll of employees injured by heat burns reported their noncompliance as the result of insufficient equipment. Regardless of the reason, insufficiently rated gear, missing equipment or improperly worn equipment can result in serious injury in the event of an arc flash. In total, the application of proper protective gear would have prevented 39 percent of electrical industry burn injuries in 2010.
Learn More About Arc Flashes
Reducing the incidence of arc flashes involves learning more about them. Technical Skills Development can help.
Our abundant online resources can help you learn more about the incredible properties of arc flashes and the regulations and practices in place to help prevent them. If you’re looking for a more formal education program for training your employees, however, Technical Skills Development has an entire program designed for you.
Our arc flash training program is designed with safety in mind, using OSHA and NFPA 70 E regulations in combination with risk management principles to provide a well-rounded, OSHA compliant training program. In a single day, our highly skilled trainers can visit your location and bring your company employees up to date with the latest in OSHA arc flash training requirements. We’ll cover personal protective equipment as well as electrical equipment safety. Teaching you about the causes of arc flashes and how to prevent them, we will equip you and your employees with the best tools to stop electrical accidents from happening.
Contact Technical Skills Development today to discuss your company’s requirements and needs. We’ll provide you a free quote and schedule your training session the same day!