In his own words, Hugh Hoagland is an instantaneous pyromaniac. He sets things on fire and blows them up, all in the name of electrical safety.
Take the $1,000 mannequin.
Hoagland, a world-class expert on arc flashes, performed a test for an unnamed electric utility that was trying to save money on expensive protective gear.
As he relates it, all the company’s employees who worked near breakers at its nuclear or coal-powered facilities typically wore cotton clothing—a T-shirt and their own blue jeans—under a flash coat that opened at the bottom, with additional protective leggings.
So Hoagland, senior managing partner and co-founder of e-Hazard in Louisville, Kentucky, ordered 20 pairs of blue jeans, several flash suits, and two mannequins, thinking he might wear out one after 20 tests.
“The first shot burned up the thousand-dollar mannequin,” he recalls. “That was the end of their day.” Moral of the story: “Every time a company cuts a corner, I will gladly talk for free with your management to convince them that the stuff your people wear to work must be the proper gear.”
Arc flashes are a huge safety concern in the electric utility industry. Statistics are tricky because of the way the federal government calculates them. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has not included arc flashes in its electrocution fatality count. But industry studies indicate that more than 2,000 workers a year are arc flash victims, with 80 percent of electrical injuries involving an arc flash component.
“The good news is, it’s probably not going to happen to you. You could work your whole career and never be in an arc flash,” says Hoagland, who has conducted nearly 190 arc flash investigations and has worked on safety training with many electric cooperatives. “But if you get an electrical injury, it’s highly likely that your electrical injury will be an arc flash. If your clothing ignites, it’s also highly likely that you’ll have permanent disability.”
An arc flash is a kind of short circuit from a fault that produces an intense burst of heat and light. It occurs when an electric current jumps from an exposed live conductor through the air until it reaches another conductor or a ground.
Most people think of a fireball, but much of the real danger, Hoagland says, is in the infrared radiation (IR) because the IR portion of the arc flash travels in a straight line.
“I could put a Kleenex behind a mannequin, hit it with an arc flash from the front, and it doesn’t ignite the Kleenex,” he says. While some researchers put the temperature of a flash at 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit, Hoagland has worked with government officials to put the number at 10,000 degrees, still enough to cause a lot of trouble.
“Once clothing ignites, that’s what kills people. That’s what hurts people in most cases.”
Like the brother of one of his friends, who was putting the finishing touches on a headquarters for a Texas power company when a new piece of equipment 5 feet away faulted, blew up, and produced an arc flash. One of the workers lost his ears and fingers; his partner did not survive the explosion.
“They were not doing anything, they were not touching anything,” says Hoagland, who reviewed the incident. “They were not doing any energized work.”
What’s underneath counts
There’s AR gear and then there’s FR gear, and they’re not the same. AR is shorthand for “arc rated,” while FR is “flame resistant.” The terminology changed in a 2012 revision from the National Fire Protection Association at the request of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Here’s the key: All AR clothing is flame resistant, but not all FR clothing has an arc rating. The arc rating, expressed in calories, generally means the amount of energy that could cause the onset of second-degree burns through the fabric half the time.
“The arc flash gear will not continue to burn if it’s arc rated,” Hoagland explains. “Arc flash gear will take the heat. It might take two to three times as much as it’s rated for and it will be fine, but we rate the materials to prevent second-degree burn.”
But the rest of a lineman’s outfit—that’s another matter, one that involves a big-time tradeoff. Commonly, linemen wear cotton shirts underneath. Some wear a polyester-blended shirt that wicks moisture. They both have their problems.
For example, what happens if a lineworker contacts electricity in an arc flash wearing an arc-rated shirt and a non-rated cotton T-shirt? Potentially bad news. It’ll go through the clothing and hit the T-shirt underneath. If a lineworker wears a polyester-blend T-shirt, it could melt onto the skin if the temperature is high enough.
“If you’re wearing cotton and it’s not sweaty, it’s going to ignite. If you’re wearing cotton and it’s sweaty, it probably won’t ignite, but it’s going to give you steam burns. It doesn’t melt, but if it ignites, it totally changes everything,” Hoagland says. “Don’t wear melting stuff underneath. But I recommend that you don’t wear 100 percent cotton underneath either. I wish everything was really simple.”
As for blue jeans, Hoagland says he still sees companies that condone non-arc-rated pants in bucket trucks, thinking an arc flash won’t go to the bottom of the bucket. “It’s started to be fewer and farther between. But some people will still do that,” he says. “That arc can go into the bucket. It may not. It may go up, it may go down, and it may go sideways. It may mostly go around you.”
The solution there, too, is arc-rated jeans at all times.
“The non-arc-rated blue jean fire is worse than the arc flash,” he says. “Everybody’s scared to death of arc flashes. They’re bad. You need to be more scared of the blue jean fire if you don’t have an arc-rated blue jean.”
The good news is a pair of arc-rated jeans can last for years.
“Typically, the AR treatment is good for life,” Hoagland says. “I have never seen a failure of arc-rated jeans in the market unless you’re working in a metals mine or a smelter,” where contaminants can affect the performance of the jeans.
It was the last call of the day. Keith Jenks, an IBEW customer service representative in Michigan responsible for turning electric service on and off, as well as electrical investigations, was in an old building checking out a meter that was running even though it was supposed to have been turned off. Run in, pull the meter, and solve the problem. He figured he’d be in and out in five minutes.
“Hot summer days, I’m starting to leave my shirt in the truck. I don’t need that big bulky helmet. I’m only going to be in there for a minute. I was walking up to residential meters with virtually no safety gear on,” he recalls.
Jenks removed the meter, rebooted it, and reinstalled it. He started to hear a buzzing noise. He was ground zero in a 480-volt phase-to-phase fault generated by a broken wire. The arc was flashing and crackling as he crab-walked away from the explosion.
“After that, I don’t remember very much.”
The event left him alive but with first-, second-, and third-degree burns on a third of his body. His glasses saved his sight. Now at keithskornersafety.com, he is an evangelist for the kind of arc-flash gear that would have let him walk away relatively unscathed.
“Your employer puts in these policies and procedures. You say, ‘Why do I have to do that?’ Because someone was injured or killed on the job,” he says. “‘That’s overkill.’ Yeah, it’s overkill, but it could be the difference between going home or not at all.”
Electric cooperatives have a strong safety record and emphasize best practices among lineworkers, but it’s still up to the individual to take the steps needed to avoid a catastrophe like Jenks’s or the ones Hoagland investigates. A study by Mission Critical Magazine in 2016 put the average cost of an electrical accident at $750,000, one reason Hoagland says arc-flash training should be an integral part of any utility’s electrical safety program.
“Wear the right stuff,” Hoagland says. “Some people are worried that we’re not wearing enough [personal protective equipment] in overhead line work, and other people are worried they’re wearing too much. I think what we’re doing right now in the OSHA standard is a great compromise. Your company decides that they’re going to buy stuff or not. You decide if you’re going to wear it.”