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. The results are often violent and can lead to serious injury, or death, when someone is near.

At this time, I would like to introduce John Albanese. John is an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) member of almost 20 years and a service tech assigned to respond to, and repair, electrical emergencies. He works with and around live electricity every day, with voltages ranging from 12 V to 34,500 V. He also works regularly in the carwash industry. Recently he disclosed a story that is definitely worth sharing. The following is his account of events that lead to a shocking and frightening situation that could have turned out much worse than it did:

The most devastating electrical incidents that I face are from arc flash. When that phenomenon occurs, the center of the arc flash can reach temperatures as high as 30,000° F. They happen completely without warning and almost always when you least expect it.

I was called to assist a customer that needed to tie into [the facility’s] 480 V switch gear to power up a new line of battery chargers for [the site’s] forklifts. Since this facility is a 24/7 operation, [the customer] wanted it done without power interruption to the plant.  When I arrived, the customer showed me where … the conduit and wire [were run], but [the customer was] afraid to punch into the main gear. I knew I would be working with live 480 V three-phase power, so I called for assistance to have another qualified electrician with me. Once he arrived, we decided to open the side of the gear to have a look at where the ground and neutral would be tied in. I was going to remove the cover over the bus where the I-line breaker was to be installed to make sure it was in good shape to accept the breaker. The gear was old and untouched for many years, so my partner was tapping on the screws of the side panel to break them loose. While he was doing this, I started to remove the bus cover. All of a sudden there was a horrific explosion. Less than a second later I found myself on my knees screaming. I wasn’t sure what happened initially. I quickly realized what had transpired and wondered if I was hurt. I first felt my face and it felt hard and my hair was crispy. I knew the power was out because it was completely black, but then I realized it was more than that, I was blind. I was scared, burnt and blind and not sure where exactly I had landed and what dangers may be next to me. I had to call for help. My partner took my arm helped me up and led me back to my service truck to sit down.

I was rushed to the hospital and somewhere along the way I got my vision back, slowly creeping in from my peripheral to my center vision. I was lucky; only second degree burns on my face and some hair loss.

After the investigation as to what had happened, it was discovered that the gear had two 4.5-inch holes knocked out on the top. This facility handled thousands of aluminum kegs every day. The banging of aluminum kegs had created an aluminum dust which settled on top of everything inside the gear. When we started banging on the screws it jarred the dust airborne and created a path for the voltage. Aluminum dust is highly explosive, which compounded the explosion.

I have always been safety-oriented and felt that I was not in danger at that point of our task. My gloves, flash suit and face shield sat in a bag on the bumper of my truck ready for use when I got to the point that I felt I needed it.

Anytime electricity is present there is a danger. I learned that no task is without the potential for an unintentional occurrence. This is a great example of how something totally unexpected can turn ugly fast. I should have been wearing my personal protection equipment before I exposed the live internal parts of the switch gear. Even with all my years of experience, my best lesson was not to ignore the safety gear available.”

After reading this, I looked up pictures of electrical burns on the Web with the idea of showing a few examples. I elected not to post any of these pictures due to their graphic and disturbing nature.

Every time I write a blog I try to put myself in the position of the reader. When I wrote this, I thought, “This is serious and I’m certain many will think this can’t and won’t happen to them.” I just hope that in the future, when you are working around electricity with that casual attitude, you remember this story. John, a seasoned expert, didn’t think it would happen either.

Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act states that employers “shall furnish to each of his employees, employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to his employees.” Arc flash is considered one of these recognized hazards, and thus, failing to take proper steps to avoid arc flash is a regulatory violation. Be sure your wash is in full compliance and has a written program, if applicable.

It is important to not just understand the dangers associated with arc flash, but also to convey these dangers, and how to protect against them, to everyone in your organization through training. It is also important to make the use of protective equipment mandatory in any situation where an employee would come in contact with electricity. If it is not already, make this a written procedure in your safety manual today.

Remember, a safe wash protects people and profits.

You can this blog post and more carwash safety tips at www.cwinsurance.blogspot.com/.