Electrical power helps support almost every aspect of daily life. It’s everywhere, flowing through the walls of our homes and workplaces, under the streets and over our heads. Most people have a healthy respect for electricity’s dangerous side, and well they should; even ordinary household current can kill when used incorrectly. However, for those whose careers require up-close-and-personal contact with electrical systems, electrical accidents are all too common.
In 2018, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 1,080 American workers suffered electrical injuries serous enough to require time away from work, and a further 115 died in accidents involving electrical parts.
Arc flashes are a common and particularly dangerous form of electrical accident, capable of injuring or killing multiple people at once with a single catastrophic failure, as well as starting fires and causing significant property damage. They happen when electrical equipment is improperly designed, installed or maintained.
The Stoddard Firm is committed to helping the victims of these painful and unnecessary accidents get the compensation they deserve.
Arc Flashes Can Happen Anywhere Strong Electrical Currents Are Used
An arc flash, sometimes referred to as an “arc blast”, occurs when electrical current arcs across the gap of an open circuit, through the air, an electrician’s tool, a body part, or another unintended conductor. This uncontrolled electrical discharge can produce a blinding flash of light, a powerful pressure wave, and a localized temperature spike of up to 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit, more than hot enough to liquefy metal electrical components.
Anyone working on or near an electrical system when an arc flash happens is in danger of electrocution, vision damage, concussive injuries, shrapnel injuries, and severe burns from either the arc itself or splashes of molten metal that the arc flash creates.
Electrical panels and fire control panels are some of the most common places for arc flashes to occur, but any electrical system with sufficient power can create an arc flash if the equipment is not properly designed and maintained.
Another extremely common place for an arc flash to occur is within a multimeter or voltmeter when that meter is being used to take measurements on a 480- or 600-volt circuit. Arcs commonly occur in this situation because of the multimeter is improperly designed and protected such that electrical “creepage” occurs on the meter’s circuit board leading to an arc at the probe tips.
Defectively Designed and Poorly Maintained Equipment Leads to Arc Flashes
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) note in their arc flash awareness literature that corroded and dusty electrical contacts significantly increase the risk of an incident. This is because corrosion and dust buildup provide additional conductive material, making it easier for an arc to form. Employees who are required to service out-of-date and neglected electrical systems are therefore more vulnerable to serious electrical injuries.
Faulty multimeters are another major cause of arc flashes. A multimeter is an essential tool of electrical work, used for measuring resistance, current, and other properties of an electrical circuit or component. Given the inherent dangers of working with electricity, the user of a multimeter needs to be able to trust the device to function as promised, but even the most respected multimeter producers have sometimes failed to live up to that trust.
Amprobe, a household name among electrical workers and hobbyists, had to issue a recall in 2012 for one of its multimeters, which was prone to causing arcs and explosions at much lower voltages than it was rated for. This was a particularly disappointing oversight, but not an isolated one. The Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) reports that roughly 10% of people who work professionally on electrical systems have had a multimeter fail violently in their hands at least once. At least Amprobe had the guts to recall its meter.
Many multimeters are similarly defective. While meter design typically takes place in the United States and Europe, the manufacture of meters has recently transitioned to China and other parts of Asia. As a result of this transition, American meter designers have eschewed safety concerns – preferring to acquiesce to Chinese manufacturers lower cost model. As a result, many multimeters do not contain adequate spacing between traces, and lack fusing, thermistors, varistors, and other electrical components that can protect against arcs.
Haste and Ignorance Can Make Perfectly Sound Electrical Systems Deadly
In their comprehensive 2015 report on workplace electrical safety, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) discovered that a large portion of on-the-job electrical injuries happen while workers are servicing electrical systems that have not been properly deactivated first. The most common reasons for this are pressure to work quickly and misunderstandings about how to turn the power off completely.
Many of the workers who suffer electrical injuries are not adequately trained to work on electrical equipment at all, but have been required to do so by their employers anyway. For example, in the summer of 2013, a maintenance supervisor was injured in an arc flash at an iron foundry in Wisconsin. The company was fined a total of $119,000 for a laundry list of electrical OSHA violations, including an absence of safety equipment, policies that included reactivating circuits without adequate safety checks, and a lack of employee training on electrical safety.
This phenomenon has not changed since the NFPA’s 2015 analysis. In June of 2019, OSHA imposed a fine of $278,456 on the smelting company ASARCO, following an arc flash incident that caused burns to three workers. The fines covered one “serious” and two “willful” safety code violations: failure to brief the employees on how to perform the work safely, failure to provide safety gear, and failure to power down the electrical breaker before the work began.
Arc Flashes Happen to Experts Too
Unqualified workers should never be forced to work on high energy electrical systems, but even experts often find their lives endangered by a lack of necessary information. Back in January of 2010, two professional electricians working for Six Flags Magic Mountain in California were injured in an arc flash while servicing a ride. Sadly, Six Flags was able to avoid liability by arguing that the electricians broke company policy by working on live electrical systems, even though the two believed that they had shut off power to the ride correctly.
Similarly, in March of 2018, two electricians contracted to perform work at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Tennessee were burned in an arc flash. An investigation found no fault with the plant’s equipment and attributed the accident to “improper access and work on an electrical panel.”
Both California and Tennessee require electricians to complete a minimum apprenticeship period and pass a certification exam, so these were not cases of untrained employees being thrown into dangerous work beyond their scope of knowledge. Each of these two accidents involved multiple licensed professionals servicing well-maintained machinery using functional tools, but falling victim to withheld, misunderstood, or miscommunicated information about the systems they were working on.
Manufacturers and Property Owners Have a Responsibility to Protect People from Arc Flashes
While arc flashes may seem sudden and random when they happen, they’re a predictable scientific phenomenon that is 100% avoidable. As with all foreseeable dangers, manufacturers and property owners are legally and morally responsible for making sure that their products, premises, and policies aren’t putting people at risk of arc flashes.
And as with all foreseeable dangers, companies aren’t always as concerned with preventing arc flashes as they should be. Repeated incidents within a single company are not unheard of, and when arc flashes happen, other signs of indifference to employee or public safety are often on display.
In August of 2019, two employees of the Michigan power company, Consumers Energy, were injured in an arc flash while working on the underground electrical distribution system in Grand Rapids. Just over six months later, on Valentine’s Day of 2020, another Consumers Energy employee suffered another arc flash while attempting what was described as a “routine meter exchange” in a church basement in Kalamazoo. All three workers suffered burns, and while the company launched an investigation into the cause of the Grand Rapids flash, reports mention no plans for improving employee safety in response to these two incidents.
Tragic Accidents and Contempt for Electrical Workers Go Hand in Hand
Consumers Energy does service a wide area, their employees often need to perform work on property that does not belong to the company, and in those circumstances, property owners may have responsibility for accidents in the field. However, in other circumstances, exposure to arc flash is a result of a defectively designed tool by a company that lacks a commitment to safety.
Here in Georgia, in 2016, a chicken plant in Gainesville received an OSHA inspection after one of their employees suffered third degree burns from an arc flash. The OSHA inspector was given access to the site where the arc flash occurred, and she asked to inspect the tools in the employee’s locker. When the tools were provided for inspection, it was determined that the screwdriver used by the injured employee lacked insulation.
Also in 2016, also here in Georgia, two contractors working for Century Communities, Inc. were struck by an arc flash while operating a construction crane. Both were hurt, and one soon died of his injuries. The arc flash was caused by the end of the crane maneuvering too close to active power lines, unintentionally completing a circuit. OSHA later fined Century Communities $12,675 for violating safety regulations requiring all machinery to be positioned in a way that makes it impossible for any part of it to come within 20 feet of power lines. While worker behavior can often reduce danger, manufacturers of cranes, power lines, and other electrical components, have a duty to eliminate that danger when possible.
Arc Flashes Can Cause Serious Long-Term Injuries
Recovering from an arc flash injury is usually a long, costly, frustrating process. The NFPA’s report on electrical accidents notes that only about one-third of flash injury victims are able to return to work within two months. While the burn, shrapnel, and concussive injuries are the most obvious obstacle at first, most survivors have an even harder time recovering from the long-term neurological and psychological effects, including:
- Chronic pain
- Memory problems
- Numbness or tingling in the extremities
In severe cases, blood clotting from deep electrical burns may also necessitate limb amputation, in order to prevent strokes and necrosis.
To guarantee the necessary freedom and support for an optimal recovery, it’s crucial to plan ahead after and arc flash and pursue full compensation for what could well be lifelong damage.
What to Do After an Arc Flash
After a person has come in contact with an arc flash, call for an ambulance immediately, and contact the proper trained persons to shut off the power. If the power cannot be shut off, carefully move the victim away from the power source using non-conductive implements. If the victim is unresponsive, a bystander trained in CPR should attempt resuscitation while awaiting professional assistance.
Serious burns should be protected from dirt and further injury but otherwise left untreated until medical professionals arrive. Even if the victim is lucid and appears uninjured, they will need a full medical examination right away. Some life-threatening effects of electrical shocks may take weeks to manifest, and delayed treatment can seriously harm the victim’s chances of recovery.
Once immediate medical needs are taken care of, the survivor of an arc flash, or in the most tragic of cases, their next of kin, should seek legal counsel to discuss next steps. Most arc flashes are caused by a lack of safety precautions on the part of a property owner or an equipment manufacturer, and no one should have to face the aftermath of one of these traumatic incidents alone. From a legal perspective, the most important thing you can do after an arc flash is to make 100% sure that the equipment involved is preserved. The next most important thing is to photograph the injuries – including the skin grafting and healing process from the burn injuries.
If you have been injured or lost a loved one due to an arc flash, call the experts at The Stoddard Firm at 678-RESULT, or reach out through our online chat function for a free consultation.