Arc Flash Safety

[slider_pro id=”3″]


An arc flash (or arc blast) is a type of electrical explosion that results from a low-impedance connection to ground or another voltage phase in an electrical system.



1 Definition
2 Examples
3 Protecting personnel
3.1 Arc flash protection equipment
3.2 Reducing hazard by design
3.2.1 Fault current
3.2.2 Arcing time
3.2.3 Distance
4 Research
5 Standards
6 References
7 External links



An arc flash is an electric arc supplied with sufficient electrical energy to cause substantial damage or harm, fire or injury.

Electrical arcs, however, fed by limited energy and well controlled, produce very bright light (as in arc lamps—enclosed, or with open electrodes), and are also used for welding and other industrial applications.

Arc flash temperatures can reach or exceed 35,000 °F or approx 20,000 °C at the arc terminals. The massive energy released in the fault rapidly vaporizes the metal conductors involved, blasting molten metal and expanding plasma outward with extreme force. A typical arc flash incident can be inconsequential but could conceivably easily produce a more severe explosion (see calculation below). The result of the violent event can cause destruction of equipment involved, fire, and injury not only to the worker but also to nearby people.

In addition to the explosive blast of such a fault, destruction also arises from the intense radiant heat produced by the arc. The metal plasma arc produces tremendous amounts of light energy from far infrared to ultraviolet. Surfaces of nearby objects, including people absorb this energy and are instantly heated to vaporizing temperatures. The effects of this can be seen on adjacent walls and equipment – they are oftenablated and eroded from the radiant effects.


In general, arc flash incidents which ignite clothing are highly improbable on systems operating at less than 208 volts phase to phase (120 Vto ground) when fed by less than a 125 kVA transformer, as 120 volts does not provide sufficient potential to cause an arc flash hazard. Most 480 V electrical services have sufficient capacity to cause an arc flash hazard. Medium-voltage equipment (above 600 V) is higher energy and therefore a higher potential for an arc flash hazard.

As an example of the energy released in an arc flash incident, consider a single phase-to-phase fault on a 480 V system with 20,000 amps of fault current. The resulting power is 9.6 MW. If the fault lasts for 10 cycles at 60 Hz, the resulting energy would be 154 kilojoules. For comparison, TNT releases 2175 J/g or more when detonated (a conventional value of 4,184 J/g is used for TNT equivalent). Thus, this fault energy is equivalent to 380 grams (approximately 0.8 pounds) of TNT. The character of an arc flash blast is quite different from a chemical explosion (more heat and light, less mechanical shock), but the resulting devastation is comparable. The rapidly expanding superheated vapor produced by the arc can cause serious injury or damage, and the intense UVvisible, and IR light produced by the arc can temporarily and sometimes even permanently blind or cause eye damage to people.

There are four different arc flash type events to be assessed when designing safety programs:

  • Open Air Arc Flashes
  • Ejected Arc Flashes
  • Equipment Focused Arc Flashes (Arc-in-a-box)
  • Tracking Arc Flashes[1]

Protecting personnel

There are many methods of protecting personnel from arc flash hazards. This can include personnel wearing arc flash personal protective equipment (PPE) or modifying the design and configuration of electrical equipment. The best way to remove the hazards of an arc flash is to de-energize electrical equipment when interacting with it, however de-energizing electrical equipment is in and of itself an arc flash hazard. In this case, one of the newest solutions is to allow the operator to stand far back from the electrical equipment by operating equipment remotely.[2]

Arc flash protection equipment

With recent increased awareness of the dangers of arc flash, there have been many companies that offer arc flash personal protective equipment (PPE). The materials are tested for their arc rating. The arc rating is the maximum incident energy resistance demonstrated by a material prior to breakopen (a hole in the material) or necessary to pass through and cause with 50% probability a second or third degree burn.[3] Arc rating is normally expressed in cal/cm² (or small calories of heat energy per square centimeter). The tests for determining arc rating are defined in ASTM F1506 Standard Performance Specification for Flame Resistant Textile Materials for Wearing Apparel for Use by Electrical Workers Exposed to Momentary Electric Arc and Related Thermal Hazards. Among the best fabrics for protection against electric arc flash are the Modacrylic-cotton blends.

Selection of appropriate PPE, given a certain task to be performed, is normally handled in one of two possible ways. The first method is to consult a hazard category classification table, like that found in NFPA 70E. Table 130.7(C)(9)(a) lists a number of typical electrical tasks by various voltage levels and recommends the category of PPE that should be worn. For example when working on 600 V switchgear and performing a removal of bolted covers to expose bare, energized parts, the table recommends a Category 3 Protective Clothing System. This Category 3 system corresponds to an ensemble of PPE that together offers protection up to 25 cal/cm² (105 J/cm² or 1.05 MJ/m²). The minimum rating of PPE necessary for any category is the maximum available energy for that category. For example, a Category 3 arc-flash hazard requires PPE rated for no less than 25 cal/cm² (1.05 MJ/m²).

The second method of selecting PPE is to perform an arc flash hazard calculation to determine the available incident arc energy. IEEE 1584provides a guide to perform these calculations given that the maximum fault current, duration of faults, and other general equipment information is known. Once the incident energy is calculated the appropriate ensemble of PPE that offers protection greater than the energy available can be selected.

PPE provides protection after an arc flash incident has occurred and should be viewed as the last line of protection. Reducing the frequency and severity of incidents should be the first option and this can be achieved through a complete arc flash hazard assessment and through the application of technology such as high-resistance grounding which has been proven to reduce the frequency and severity of incidents.

Reducing hazard by design

Three key factors determine the intensity of an arc flash on personnel. These factors are the quantity of fault current available in a system, the time until an arc flash fault is cleared, and the distance an individual is from a fault arc. Various design and equipment configuration choices can be made to affect these factors and in turn reduce the arc flash hazard.

Fault current

Fault current can be limited by using current limiting devices such as grounding resistors or fuses. If the fault current is limited to 5 amperes or less, then many ground faults self-extinguish and do not propagate into phase-to-phase faults.

Arcing time

Arcing time can be reduced by temporarily setting upstream protective devices to lower setpoints during maintenance periods or by employing zone-selective interlocking protection (ZSIP).

Arcing time can significantly be reduced by protection based on detection of arc-flash light. Optical detection is often combined with overcurrent information.[4] Light and current based protection can be set up with dedicated arc-flash protective relays or by using normalprotective relays equipped with arc-flash option.

The most efficient means to reduce arcing time is to use an arc eliminator that will extinguish the arc within a few milliseconds.


The distance from an arc flash source within which an unprotected person has a 50% chance of receiving a second degree burn is referred to as the “flash protection boundary”. Those conducting flash hazard analyses must consider this boundary, and then must determine what PPE should be worn within the flash protection boundary.[5] Remote operators or robots can be used to perform activities that have a high risk for arc flash incidents, such as inserting draw-out circuit breakers on a live electrical bus. Remote racking systems are available which keep the operator outside the arc flash hazard zone.


Both the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have joined forces in an initiative to fund and support research and testing to increase the understanding of arc flash.[6] The results of this collaborative project will provide information that will be used to improve electrical safety standards, predict the hazards associated with arcing faults and accompanying arc blasts, and provide practical safeguards for employees in the workplace.


  • OSHA Standards 29-CFR, Part 1910. Occupational Safety and Health Standards. 1910 sub part S (electrical) Standard number 1910.333 specifically addresses Standards for Work Practices and references NFPA 70E.
  • The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 70 – 2011 “The National Electrical Code” (NEC) contains requirements for warning labels. See NEC Article 110.16.
  • NFPA 70E 2009 provides guidance on implementing appropriate work practices that are required to safeguard workers from injury while working on or near exposed electrical conductors or circuit parts that could become energized.
  • The Canadian Standards Association’s CSA Z462 Arc Flash Standard is Canada’s version of NFPA70E. Released in 2008.[7]
  • The Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers IEEE 1584 – 2002 Guide to Performing Arc-Flash Hazard Calculations.[8]

Arc flash hazard software exists that allows businesses to comply with the myriad government regulations while providing their workforce with an optimally safe environment. Many software companies now offer arc flash hazard solutions. Few power services companies calculate safe flash boundaries.


  1. Hoagland, Hugh (2009-08-03). Arc Flash Training & PPE Protection. Occupational Health & Safety. Retrieved 2011-02-22.
  2. J. Phillips. “[1]“. Electrical Contractor. U.S. Accessed April 20, 2010.
  3. NFPA 70E – Electrical Safety in the workplace
  4. Zeller, M.; Scheer, G. (2008). “Add Trip Security to Arc-Flash Detection for Safety and Reliability, Proceedings of the 35rd Annual Western Protective Relay Conference, Spokane, WA”.
  5. Homce, Gerald T. and James C. Cawley. “Understanding and Quantifying Arc Flash Hazards in the Mining Industry“. NIOSHTIC-2 No. 20032720. U.S. DHHS, CDC, NIOSH. Accessed October 27, 2008.
  6. IEEE/NFPA Collaborative Research Project
  7. CSA Electrical Safety Conference
  8. IEEE 1584 Working Group website