I’ve conducted hundreds of electrical safety training classes throughout the United States, and I often hear maintenance supervisors and teams say: “We don’t need an arc flash study or arc flash PPE because we don’t do energized work. We contract out all of that work.”
“Great,” I say, “I can get a head start on my day. Obviously, you don’t need this training, so if I leave now maybe I can catch an early flight home.”
Sometimes I ask, “If you don’t engage in live electrical work, would it be okay for me to inspect the maintenance team’s work areas? I would like to collect all the voltage meters and testing equipment and take them home with me. You don’t need them, right?”
As you can probably guess, I don’t actually say those things, but I have thought them many times. If you are reading this article, and you believe that you and your maintenance team do not engage in live electrical work, I encourage you to read on because you might change your mind by the end of this article.
1) Do the members of your maintenance team have their own multimeters or voltage testers?
2) If you answered “yes” to the question above, can they get rid of these items and still do their jobs?
3) Can you come up with 10 tasks that would be considered energized work?
4) Do you know the definition of energized work?
Let’s start with the last question. Energized work consists of any task in which the worker is working on electrical equipment while he or she is within the limited approach or arc flash boundary and exposed to live electrical parts. That is a simplified, but straight-forward definition.
Live electrical work can be categorized into two types: repair and diagnostic. Repair work consists of tasks such as changing breakers or fuses or tightening wire connections. Diagnostic work consists of tasks such as voltage reading, troubleshooting, and visual inspections.
• Removing and replacing panel covers
• Opening disconnect or MCC doors
• Removing the dead-front from a panelboard
• Taking voltage or current readings (using a multimeter)
• Replacing breakers, fuses, or other parts
• Landing wire or tightening connections to a lug
• Moving conductors
• Troubleshooting/diagnostic testing
• Visual inspections
• Thinking it is “dead” when it is “live”
This isn’t a complete list, but let’s start with these for now. Did any item on this list surprise you? If you are one of those individuals who believe that you and your team do not engage in energized work, a couple of the items above might surprise you. It is a common misconception that live electrical work consists only of repair and maintenance tasks as described above. Many workers do not view diagnostic work as energized work, even when the equipment on which they are working is live. I once believed that myself.
I have a background in infrared thermography. For 15 years, I conducted tens of thousands of infrared inspections that required removing and replacing panel covers from energized equipment. I opened just as many disconnect and MCC doors. I took voltage readings, current readings, and conducted visual inspections. I never thought of this as live electrical work, even though I knew the equipment was energized. In other words, I have been there and done that. I never considered what I was doing as energized work.
This kind of thinking is not only wrong, it is dangerous. Using a meter to measure the voltage of exposed live electrical parts is energized work, just as changing a breaker constitutes energized work. The worker is using a tool—a multimeter—and sticking his or her hands, and sometimes face, inside an electrical panel. Obviously, this is energized work, and it is dangerous.
This chart shows the breakdown of arc flash causes by task category.
Diagnostic work is not only considered live electrical work, it can be just as dangerous as changing a breaker or repairing live electrical equipment. As a matter of fact, troubleshooting is the leading trigger of arc flash events, causing almost one-fourth of all arc flash events. This makes sense. During troubleshooting, a worker is typically opening doors or removing panels to expose live parts. In addition, the worker is often utilizing some type of measuring or metering tool, such as a voltage meter, inside the panel. Moving conductors are also common. Interactions such as this, with the equipment inside the panel, could trigger an arc flash event.
Now that you have read further, do you still believe that your workers do not engage in energized work? If so, great. Let’s keep it that way. If, however, you have changed your mind, congratulations. This is the first step in recognizing the risks involved when working in an energized environment. You can now focus on risk assessment and protection.
The bottom line is this: an arc flash risk assessment is required whether you and your maintenance team engage in live electrical work or not. Even if you hire contractors for all live electrical work, your company is still responsible for identifying and making contractors aware of the risks involved in doing the work. An arc flash label and risk assessment go a long way to accomplish this. In addition, anyone performing live electrical work should be provided with the necessary protection and PPE to minimize the risk. Employers bear the responsibility for their workers, while contractors bear their own responsibility. In both cases, the host facility is responsible for making the worker aware of the hazards.