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Understanding Arc Flash Hazards: Prevention and Protection Strategies

Drew Dwyer
Posted by Drew Dwyer on Jul 9, 2024 9:30:00 AM
Understanding Arc Flash Hazards: Prevention and Protection Strategies

Are you aware of this hidden danger lurking within your electrical system? Arc flash hazards are silent but deadly and are among the most devastating risks. These fiery explosions result from short circuits in high-power electrical devices. They often end in severe or life-altering injuries, financial losses, and substantial equipment damage. The importance of understanding and mitigating these hazards cannot be overstated. This guide will review the essentials of arc flash hazards, the regulations governing them, and best practices for protection.


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What is Arc Flash? | Anatomy of an Arc Flash Incident | Identifying Arc Flash Risks: Reviewing Past Case Studies | Common Causes of Arc Flash Incidents | NFPA 70E and OSHA Regulations | Comprehensive Arc Flash Study | Types of Arc Flash Analysis | Arc Flash Mitigation  | Electrical Safety Training for Arc Flash Mitigation | Guide to Products  | Frequently Asked Questions


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Key Takeaways


✔️ Understanding and mitigating arc flash is a critical safety concern for electrical engineers due to the severe injuries, financial loss, and equipment damage they can cause.


✔️ Compliance with NFPA 70E and OSHA regulations is essential for creating a safe working environment. These standards and regulations provide practical guidelines for electrical safety practices, hazard elimination, equipment maintenance, and the use of personal protective equipment.


✔️ A comprehensive safety program and arc flashing training significantly help reduce the risk associated with arc flash hazards. 



What is Arc Flash?

An arc flash or arc blast occurs when an electrical shortage or error causes a high-voltage arc, releasing powerful energy through heat, light, and pressure. It is estimated that five to ten arc flash explosions occur daily in the U.S. These blasts are so potent that they can prove fatal if they occur within a 10-foot range of a person. Each year, approximately 2000 individuals in the U.S. are admitted to hospitals due to injuries sustained from arc flash burns.



This phenomenon can result in devastating consequences, including:

  • Severe burns, blindness, hearing loss, and possible death
  • Lasting financial losses
  • Hefty fines
  • Crippling lawsuits
  • Extensive damage to equipment
  • Disrupted employee morale, employees feeling less and less safe at work

The temperature of an arc flash can reach up to 35,000°F, vaporizing metal and causing a pressure wave capable of tearing apart equipment and knocking personnel off their feet. Electrical engineers must understand the conditions leading to arc flashes, such as equipment failure, loose connections, and improper work practices. Learn more about arc flash in Eaton's whitepaper, "What You Need to Know About Arc Flash."



Anatomy of an Arc Flash Incident


Reviewing an arc flash incident reveals three main elements: the formation of an electric arc, the release of intense heat energy, and the resulting effects of molten metal and blast pressure. Understanding these elements helps anticipate and mitigate the risks of an arc flash incident.

The Electric Arc Explained

An electric arc is a discharge of electric current across a gap in a circuit, sustained by a thermally ionized gas known as plasma. Defined by a low potential gradient between the electrodes and a high current density, the electric arc plays a central role in the arc flash phenomenon.

Heat Energy and Its Dangers

The release of heat energy during an arc flash incident is attributed to the electrical arc being supplied with sufficient electrical energy. As a result, the electrical arcs undergo negative incremental resistance, causing their electrical resistance to decrease as the arc temperature rises. The temperatures of arc flashes can reach or exceed 35,000 °F (19,400 °C) at the arc terminals, surpassing the temperature of the surface of the sun and leading to the vaporization of electrical equipment.

The impact of the heat energy released from an arc flash on nearby materials is significant. It can lead to:

  • Ignition of nearby materials such as copper, aluminum conductors, and steel equipment parts
  • Liquefaction or vaporization of these materials
  • Explosive pressure and sound waves

The intense heat can set clothing on fire and cause severe burns to people nearby, highlighting the need for heat management in arc flash safety.

The Aftermath: Molten Metal and Blast Pressure

The energy released after an arc flash incident can vaporize metal conductors, producing molten metal. This can also create a pressure wave, known as an arc blast, which can damage infrastructure.

The severity of injuries resulting from an arc blast can range from minor to serious, including:

  • Severe burns
  • Hearing loss
  • Eye injuries
  • Lung damage
  • Blast injuries
  • Loss of memory or brain function from concussion
  • Damage to internal organs
  • Death

Understanding these potential aftermath effects is key for effective arc flash safety planning and response.


Identifying Arc Flash Risks: Reviewing Past Case Studies 

Identifying arc flash risks involves a comprehensive assessment of various factors, including:


  • The design and condition of electrical equipment
  • The presence of an overcurrent protective device
  • The operating time
  • The effectiveness of maintenance activities

Recognizing these factors can help to identify potential hazards and implement necessary safety measures.

Apart from the technical aspects of the equipment, the human factor also plays a significant role in arc flash risks. Documented case studies involving arc flash incidents provide valuable insights into the causes, consequences, and lessons learned from these incidents. Past arc flash incidents have been attributed to:

Accidental Contact: Working around exposed and live parts always comes with a risk. An accident as seemingly harmless as dropping a tool or physically touching the live part can trigger an arc flash, instantly causing an energy explosion with temperatures exceeding 35,000˚F.

Testing and Troubleshooting Live Equipment: Keeping uptime for critical processes often necessitates working on live equipment. Potential personal injury and downtime may occur if a test probe inadvertently forms a phase-to-phase or phase-to-ground connection during a standard check. Utilizing appropriate tools for the job can mitigate the risk of an arc flash.

Installing and Operating Live Equipment: Actions such as adding or removing circuit breakers, contactors, or components in energized control circuits or installing or removing MCC buckets from a live bus can induce an arc flash.

Human Error: This can lead to significant mistakes and accidents, often resulting from a lack of attention to detail or a disregard for established safety protocols. These incidents can also occur when systems are designed without considering operator input, leading to misunderstandings or misuse of equipment. 


Poor Equipment Condition: Factors such as damaged insulation and loose, corroded, or wrongly connected control connections can contribute to malfunctions and, ultimately, arc flash incidents. Damaged cable installation, equipment enclosures, operating mechanisms, and cable/bus supports increase the risk of exposure to hazards and the probability of an accident.

Improperly Maintained Equipment and Tools: If a circuit protective device, designed to interrupt current flow after detecting a downstream short circuit or fault, fails due to poor maintenance, an explosive arc flash can result. 


The severe impact of these incidents highlights the critical need for arc flash safety. Neglecting arc flash safety can result in grave consequences. 



Understanding NFPA 70E and OSHA Regulations

Compliance with NFPA 70E and OSHA regulations is not just about avoiding fines; it’s about ensuring safety. NFPA 70E provides practical standards for electrical safety practices, while OSHA enforces these standards to promote safe working conditions. Familiarity with these regulations is crucial for creating an effective safety program.



NFPA 70E provides essential guidelines for safe electrical work, emphasizing hazard elimination, maintenance, and proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE). It is a key standard for electrical safety, helping protect workers from dangers like arc flash and ensuring compliance with industry best practices.



The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces standards to ensure safe and healthful working conditions. Compliance with OSHA regulations is mandatory and includes adhering to guidelines provided by NFPA 70E. OSHA's electrical safety requirements also promote workplace safety. These regulations mandate proper training, risk assessments, and the use of appropriate PPE.


The Role of Equipment Labeling and Signage

NFPA 70E sets the standards for labeling requirements related to arc flash protection, and these are updated every three years to incorporate the latest safety practices. The labeling of electrical equipment plays a crucial role in providing workers with vital information about hazards, such as voltage and current levels, thereby increasing awareness and encouraging the observance of safety precautions.

Arc flash warning labels generally contain details such as the distance of the arc flash boundary, the requirement for arc-rated personal protective equipment (PPE), and occasionally a red ‘Danger’ header to notify personnel of the associated risks. The most recent NFPA 70E requirements for labeling consist of the following: Arc Flash WARNING or DANGER Sign, Arc Flash Hazard Description, Nominal Voltage, Arc Flash Boundary, Incident Energy, Available Fault Current, Recommended PPE, and Working Distance. Learn how to properly read an arc flash warning label in Eaton's flyer, "How to read an arc flash label."

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Mitigation Strategies for Arc Flash: Strategies for Improved Electrical Safety

When strategizing for arc flash safety, we consider aspects such as:

  • The selection of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Compliance with electrical safety standards
  • The implementation of engineering controls and maintenance practices

Each of these strategies plays a crucial role in minimizing arc flash risks and enhancing the safety of workers and equipment.

Choosing Appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is designed to protect employees from accidental exposure to electric shock and arc flash, ensuring their safety at all times. In electrical safety, ‘arc rating’ refers to the maximum incident energy resistance a material demonstrates before breaking open, expressed in calories/cm2. Flame-resistant clothing plays a significant role in arc flash protection, preventing or reducing the severity of burn injuries resulting from an arc flash.

Choosing appropriate PPE for arc flash protection is typically carried out using standardized methods, such as consulting a hazard category classification table found in NFPA 70E, which considers factors like minimum working distance, maximum fault current available, and maximum fault clearing time, among others.

Examples of flame-resistant PPE appropriate for arc flash protection include:

  • Gloves
  • Shirts
  • Pants
  • Boots
  • Face shield
  • Hard hat 


Implementing Electrical Safety Standards

Compliance with NFPA 70E and OSHA regulations is not just about avoiding fines; it’s about ensuring safety. NFPA 70E provides practical standards for electrical safety practices, while OSHA enforces these standards to promote safe working conditions. Familiarity with these regulations is crucial for creating an effective safety program. The primary electrical safety standards that should be followed to prevent arc flash incidents include adherence to NFPA 70E-2004 and performing assessments of arc flash and shock protection on equipment operating at 50 volts or higher. Employers are obligated by law to conduct a workplace assessment for flame and electric-arc hazards, determine the heat energy from electric arcs, and ensure that employees wear non-melting or igniting clothing. They are also required to follow OSHA guidelines for warning signs and protection from electric-arc-flash hazards, as well as adhere to NFPA 70E-2004.

The relationship between the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 70E standards, as well as the National Electrical Code, in terms of arc flash safety, is significant. While the NESC mandates the use of arc-rated personal protective equipment (PPE) with an arc rating that surpasses the calculated arc flash hazard, NFPA 70E offers recommendations for electrical safety, encompassing arc flash hazards.

The process of implementing electrical safety standards in a workplace includes:

  • Establishing clear safety procedures and protocols
  • Ensuring safe use of electrical equipment
  • Conducting a comprehensive risk assessment
  • Developing safety procedures and guidelines
  • Implementing regular training.

Engineering Controls and Maintenance

Engineering controls are integral to mitigating the risk of arc flash incidents. Some measures that can be implemented include:

  • Insulated barriers
  • Proper enclosures
  • Equipment designed to decrease the chances of an arc flash
  • Adjusting the fuse size to significantly reduce incident energy levels on electrical equipment.

To guarantee arc flash protection, scheduled inspections of electrical equipment are recommended, and the incident energy analysis should be reviewed every five years. Preventive maintenance entails conducting specific checks, including annual inspection of breakers, electrical testing of arc flash gloves every six months, and visual examination of tools for damage or wear.


For a list of arc flash mitigation strategies, download Download the Arc Flash Eaton Checklist.

Arc Flash Mitigation Checklist 



Preventive Measures Against Arc Flash Hazards: Maintenance and Training

Regular equipment maintenance involves consistent testing, routine maintenance, field service, and using an Arcflash Reduction Maintenance System (ARMS) to minimize fault duration and associated risks. Learn more about predictive maintenance strategies in our blog post, "The Why and How of Predictive Maintenance."

Another key element to mitigation is established ar flash training programs that focus on continuous education, auditing, and improvement. These programs have proven effective in preventing arc faults. Both high-voltage and low-voltage settings pose elevated risk for arc flash incidents, with research indicating that hazard severity is generally greater at low voltage than at high voltage. Workers exposed to electrical hazards or performing electrical work in high-risk environments must undergo specialized arc flash safety training to manage these risks. Eaton offers customizable onsite training that includes a thorough inspection of your power distribution system and highlights the importance of an accurate arc flash analysis report. This helps avoid the unnecessary overuse of protective gear during routine operations and maintenance.

Eaton provides "Understanding Arc Flash and Electrical Safety" training for various industries. The programs range from a 4-hour session to an 8-hour session. Topics include:

  • Current and proposed standards
  • Calculating short circuit current
  • Determining a safe approach distance
  • Strategies to reduce arc flash hazards
  • Understanding arc ratings for common garments

    Request Arc Flash Training

    You can also learn more in Eaton's YouTube video below. Is the video not loading? Watch here. 



Enhance Your Workplace Safety with a Comprehensive Arc Flash Study

Prioritizing Arc Flash Safety means identifying and managing hazards. However, managing a large facility or campus can be overwhelming because of the scope of resourcing budget and personnel for a full-scale arc flash study. We are here to help - no need to postpone. Our experts help you organize and get upper management buy-in before starting your study. 


Initial Approach Includes:


  1. Identifying critical equipment in your operations: We assess the equipment that underpins your key processes and prioritize them for arc flash analysis. This step will avert costly and unplanned shutdowns.


  3. Equipment energized for maintenance and troubleshooting: We understand there are unavoidable circumstances where your equipment needs to stay energized. Our team will ensure that your personnel understand the hazards and are well-prepared.


  5. Prioritizing essential buildings: We identify and prioritize the facilities and housing equipment crucial to your business operations.


  7. Performing regular equipment inspections: Ageing equipment can increase arc flash potential due to unresponsive protection. Regular inspections and preventive measures will ensure functionality and safety.


  9. Assessing your resources and planning: We understand your constraints and prepare a suitable schedule for an effective arc flash study.

  10. Request Assistant Getting Started 



Types of Arc Flash Analysis:

Once scope and magnitude are accounted for, conducting thorough electrical system assessments is the only way to identify potential arc flash hazards. Types of analysis include:

Incident Energy Analysis: The first step to mitigating these hazards is performing an incident energy analysis, which guides effective power management. We can conduct a thorough incident Energy Analysis to identify potential electrical hazards and find ways to minimize the risks involved.

Fault Current Reduction: Implementing measures to reduce the available fault current.

Shorten Clearing Time: Reduce the duration a fault impacts the system, minimizing potential damages.

Regular Inspections: Ensuring all equipment is in good working order and identifying potential risks.


Request an Analysis Today



How are Arc Flash Boundaries Measured? 

An arc flash boundary defines the minimum safe distance from exposed energized conductors or circuit parts that could potentially trigger an arc flash event. The boundary is determined based on 1.2 calories/cm2 of incident energy, which represents the point at which a worker lacking suitable PPE would sustain second-degree burns.

Factors such as the operating voltage, type of equipment or switchgear, and the energy level of an arc flash impact the size of an arc flash boundary. Arc flash boundaries are established to minimize risk and ensure electrical safety.

According to NFPA 70E, there are three boundaries to consider: the limited approach boundary, the restricted approach boundary, and the prohibited approach boundary. These boundaries determine the minimum safe distances from exposed energized conductors or circuit parts that have the potential for an arc flash. Learn more in Eaton's video below. Is the video not loading? Watch here. 





Arc flash hazards are dangerous, but proper training, compliance with regulations, and comprehensive safety programs can greatly reduce the risks. Contact your local Airline sales rep today to learn more about enhancing your safety. Let's work together to ensure a safer future for everyone in the electrical industry!

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Additional Resources 



Frequently Asked Questions

What does arc flash do?

An arc flash is an extremely dangerous event that can cause injury or death to workers and damage electrical assets and structures. It releases intense heat and light, causing burns, and generates a pressure wave that can cause damage to structures, equipment, and nearby workers. An arc flash is an explosive release of energy from an electrical arc when the electrical current passes through ionized air, occurring in less than a second during a fault.

Is arc flash life-threatening?

Arc flash can be life-threatening, causing serious burns, injury, and even death to those in close proximity or as far as 10 feet away. The risks include potential fatal injuries and damage to property and equipment.

What does arc flash protection do?

Arc flash protection aims to provide specialized clothing and equipment to mitigate the damage of an electrical explosion, ensuring the wearer is covered from head to toe. This includes helmets, face shields, hoods, coveralls, coats, and more engineered for this purpose. PPE also includes rubberized clothing that does not conduct electricity.

What causes an arc flash?

An arc flash is caused by an accidental short circuit in an electrical phase. This short circuit results in an explosion of oxygen in the air around the phase(s), creating high temperatures that can melt conductors and other electrical parts.

Topics: Electrical, Explainers, Eaton, Trainings

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