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Electrical arc flash

De-energise equipment before starting any electrical work to prevent burns, injury and death caused by an electrical arc flash. If the job requires you to work live, control the risks and follow safe work procedures.

When you woke up this morning you thought this would be a day like any other.

You've been called in to do a quick job, change a circuit breaker. No big deal. You've done it a million times before. You aren't going to rock the boat by asking for the power to be shut down. You'll just do it live. It'll only take a second.

What you don't know is in the six months since this panel was last opened, dust has built up between live parts. There's a loose screw waiting to drop at any minute, and the insulation on the bus bar is old, worn and about to crack.

But that doesn't matter. Whatever the reason, you're working on live, energised equipment and this is about to happen.

[Large explosion]

[High pitched tone]

So what just happened, you just experienced an arc flash. An unexpected, violent electrical short circuit where current flowed between the phase conductors, neutral and Earth. When that electrical arc fault occurred, the following things happened.

The arc caused a superheated ball of flame to erupt around you. A fireball that reached 20,000 degrees Celsius in a fraction of a second. That's four times hotter than the surface of the Sun. And it happened 30 centimetres from your face.

The copper conductors vaporised and expanded up to 67,000 times their original volume, culminating in a shower of molten metal flying directly at you.

The vaporised metals, smoke and burnt components formed a boiling, poisonous gas that engulfed you and went into your airways.

The pressure wave knocked you off your feet and into the wall behind you. Collapsing your left lung.

Thankfully, you survived.

Your hands took the bulk of the heat blast, causing third degree burns. You'll need skin grafts and months of rehabilitation. If you had worn the correct protective gloves, you could have reduced the risks and avoided serious burns.

Your front and back were badly burnt, with second degree burns across your chest from the initial blast, as well as a patchwork of first and second degree burns where your shirt caught fire. If you had been wearing the correct arc-rated protective clothing, it could have prevented the arc flash from setting your clothes on fire.

None of this would have happened if you had assessed the risks and deenergised the switchboard before you started work.

But it's too late now.

You will never regain the full use of your hands, so you may not be able to work as an electrician again. You'll be off work of any sort for months. On top of the injuries and lost wages, you'll also have fines to pay.

If there are energised parts; expect the unexpected and protect yourself against arc flash.

Always follow safe work procedures and wear appropriate PPE to reduce the risks of serious burns, injury or death.

Remember, the only way to eliminate the risk of arc flash is to choose not to work live.

Arc flash safety – Mark’s story

Download a copy of this film (ZIP/MP4, 357MB)

Mark: I've been an electrician for about 18 years now and I'm very confident in what I do and I still ended up in hospital.

I got up that day, a standard day, not thinking anything of it I says that I'll bounce in and do that power quality assessment I had to do.

I'd assessed the work to be done live and I was very confident on what had to get done in response to do it live. All I need to do is clip on these four crocodile clips, which isn't a hard task, you know what I mean, I can see the bus bar.

I've clipped on the first one and then I went to clip on the second one, as soon as I touched it, it just went bffff - this white yellow flash, you know what I mean, on my face and just a really disgusting noise. I wasn't unconscious but I sorta realised what had happened and I could just smell all my hair had burnt and my skin was all burning, and I could see all my clothes were all burnt and things and my skin was hanging off and that, I was just all black.

Mel: So, when I first found out he had the accident I was at work but when I answered the phone I couldn't actually understand what he was saying, he was all gibberish and, but all I got was 'I'm in a bad way, I'm being taken to hospital'. I just, like, panicked, yeah.

Mark Pocock: In Mark's case while he was working in the switchboard, as a result of attempting to pull off two pieces of insulation, he exposed the risk of two separate electrical phases in bridging that out with his screwdriver he's created a large arc flash with high volt current available inside the switchboard, which has resulted in a large fireball which burnt Mark considerably

Mel: When I first walked in to see him, he was in a hospital bed and he was just black, black and his hair was singed and…

Mark: The injuries I actually sustained would have been, it was actually 12 per cent body burns so that involved skin grafts for that to heal they cut or they grind your skin off and then lay that on top of the burns.

Mel: So, the next day after the skin grafts, as soon as I walked into his room, in the burns ward, he was just head to toe in bandages, he looked like a mummy. I think that's when it hit me.

Mark: The first week was not an enjoyable time, I was in splints, full arm splints, leg splints, couldn't even pick my own nose. Every second day I had to get all my dressings took off, so you've got dressings stuck on to skin grafts or sticking to you so you need to go in your shower and get all wetted up to release like all the stickiness of it and then take it off and it just sticks to your skin and it's sore. I didn't know what I was going to look like.

In hospital for three weeks and, yeah, off work for three months and what I didn't realise then, during with what I was going through how it had hurt Mel and how it had emotionally strained her, mentally and emotionally. It's not a nice feeling, you know, that the person you love is obviously upset and hurt because of what's happened to you.

Mel: Mark definitely didn't realise how much his accident had affected me. The realisation of how serious it was. He could have died, yeah, just had no idea.

Mel: When Mark started having his rehab, that was hard because he had been in hospital for such a long period of time without moving, he was really happy when he called me that he told me he had walked for the first time, with a zimmer frame, so he still had to lean on it but I was really proud of him.

Mark: It was also a really big emotional burden that's getting put on your loved ones, whether it be your wife, you know what I mean, your family, your parents. Something like this puts an emotional burden on them.

Mel: He loves his work, he loves to be always, you know, keeping his mind active, so when he couldn't go straight back to work that also held some frustrations with some, I think some, a little bit of anger. I was really happy to see him back at work, I do want to be with him for the rest of my life so I am grateful that he is healed.

Mark Pocock: You can prevent arc flash by eliminating the hazard. Turn the power off and isolate the equipment, even if that means rescheduling the work for another time. Remember, working near energised parts can be just as dangerous as performing live work. Arc flash risk isn't just limited to large switchboards, they can also occur in smaller switchboards, electrical supply pillars and even large electrical equipment, so plan your work and always follow your safe working procedures.

Mark: Yeah I think one thing that I would like to get out there after my accident is just to all the other sparkies out there, just don't work live. Don't put yourself in situations where, like I was, just because you're trying to please the client, just because you're trying to get the job done faster.

If you've got a wife, kids, family, like, it's just not worth it. Nothing is worth your life.

What is arc flash?

An arc flash is a release of electrical energy that causes an explosion which can reach temperatures of up to 20,000 degrees Celsius.

An arc flash usually occurs in large switchboards but can also occur in smaller switchboards, electricity supply pillars or large electrical equipment.

Common causes of arc flash include:

  • unsafe work practices and procedures
  • foreign materials
  • breakdown of busbar insulation
  • electrical equipment failure such as a switch, circuit breaker or loose cables
  • contacting energised equipment with uninsulated tools
  • using test equipment not designed or rated for the job.

What are the risks of arc flash?

An arc flash can happen in a split-second, causing serious burns, injury and death as well as damage to property and equipment.

How do I manage the risks?

Prevent arc flash by eliminating the hazard. Turn the power off and isolate the equipment, even if it means rescheduling the work to another time.

Remember, working near energised parts can be just as dangerous as performing live work.

For workers

As a worker, you must take reasonable care of your own electrical safety and not adversely affect the safety of others. You must comply with any reasonable instruction and cooperate with any reasonable policy relating to electrical safety at your place of work. If your employer provides you with equipment to do a job, you must use it in accordance with the information, instruction and training provided on its use.

For businesses

Employers or persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) have responsibilities under the Electrical Safety Act 2002.

Use the practical advice in the Managing electrical risks in the workplace code of practice 2021 (PDF, 1.25 MB) to create a safe place of work.

Electrical safety laws prohibit work on energised electrical equipment unless:

  • it is necessary in the interests of health and safety that the electrical work is carried out while the equipment is energised (for example, on life-saving equipment)
  • it is necessary that the electrical equipment is energised in order for work on it to be carried out properly
  • it is necessary for the purposes of testing to ensure the equipment is energised
  • there is no reasonable alternative means of carrying out the work.

If workers are required to work on or near electrical equipment, take all reasonably practical measures to protect workers from arc flash through hazard elimination and risk reduction.

You should also:

  • ensure workers have sufficient and appropriate training and supervision according to their experience and the tasks that their doing
  • read through relevant legislation and codes of practice (see the bottom of this page for details)
  • know what to do in an electrical emergency.

Four steps to risk management

Identify the electrical equipment with the potential for arc flash and any work in the vicinity of energised equipment.

Talk to your workers – they will have a good insight into the hazards they can see at your place of work.

The risk of arc flash increases by the degree of interaction with the energised equipment.

Consider the level of possible fault current present at the switchboard. Take into account:

  • the physical size of the switchboard
  • the size of the incoming consumer mains
  • high fault current ratings of circuit protection devices
  • the presence of fault current limiters on the switchboard
  • transformers located near the switchboard.

You can use this risk assessment template (DOCX, 0.02 MB) to guide you and record your assessments.

A PCBU has a duty to either eliminate risks, if reasonably practicable, or to minimise them as much as possible. Workers have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety.

You must work through the hierarchy of controls to choose the control that most effectively eliminates or minimises the risk of working near energised electrical parts. This may involve a single control measure or a combination of two or more different controls.

Under the hierarchy of controls, substitution, isolation and engineering controls are ranked at the same level of protection, ahead of administrative controls and then personal protective equipment.

A safe system of work or safe work method statement for managing the risk of arc flash should include:

  • electrically isolating nearby electrical equipment or installation before starting work, and ensuring it can't be reconnected while the work is being carried out
  • using insulated or non-conductive physical barriers to prevent inadvertent contact with energised parts
  • ensuring workers have appropriate knowledge and skills to perform the work safely
  • ensuring testing procedures are in place to prove parts are de-energised before work commences
  • ensuring people not required for the work are excluded from the area, by use of screens, barriers and signage
  • ensuring workers have tools, test equipment and PPE suitable for the rated level of fault current.

Additional consideration should be given to using a safety observer.

Control measures should be regularly reviewed. If necessary, revise your measures so they work as planned and are as effective as possible. The aim is to maintain a work environment that is without risks to health and safety.

Standards and compliance

Codes of practice

Related links