The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace has come a long way with regard to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for thermographers (people using infrared cameras).
In the 2015 edition of NFPA 70E, the drafting committee decided that if the person removing the panel covers wore full arc-rated clothing and PPE, the thermographer could elect to not wear arc-rated clothing and PPE if:
- They did not cross the restricted approach boundary,
- Break the plane of the enclosure; and
- Did not interact with the equipment in any way.
In the 2018 edition of NFPA 70E, the committee did not make any changes to those requirements, but a new table was added that may assist in determining whether arc-rated clothing and PPE is necessary.
|Task||Equipment Condition||Likelihood of Occurrence*|
|Reading a panel meter while operating a meter switch.||Any||No|
|Performing infrared thermography and other non-contact inspections outside the restricted approach boundary. This activity does not include opening of doors or covers.|
|Working on control circuits with exposed energized electrical conductors and circuit parts, nominal 125 volts ac or dc, or below without any other exposed energized equipment over nominal 125 volts ac or dc, including opening of hinged covers to gain access.|
|Examination of insulated cable with no manipulation of cable.|
|For dc systems insertion or removal of individual cells or multi-cell units of a battery system in an open rack.|
|For dc systems, maintenance on a single cell of a battery system or multi-cell units in an open rack.|
Table 130.5(C) (partial). Courtesy of the National Fire Protection Association
A risk assessment is always needed, even when using the 70E tables. There may be situations or conditions that would require the use of arc-rated clothing and PPE even though Table 130.5(C) indicates “NO”. The person about to perform the task is the one who would be injured if there were an arc event and makes the final decision.
As stated previously, the 70E represents the minimum acceptable requirements and it is likely that those requirements will need to be exceeded.
Here are a few more important points to know about the revised PPE recommendations for thermographers:
- NFPA 70E represents minimum safe work practices, not best safe work practices. Any qualified person about to perform a task that exposes them to electrical hazards must perform a full risk assessment, including a shock risk assessment and an arc flash risk assessment.
- The person removing the panel covers must wear full arc-rated clothing and PPE. Once the panel covers are off, the area secured and inspected for possible hazards that may not be readily apparent, then the thermographer can enter and perform the scan, wearing appropriate PPE for that level risk.
- As long as the equipment is energized, the risk of arc flash remains, however. The new table, Table 130.5(C) is permitted to be used to help determine the likelihood of occurrence of an arc flash.
Also, be aware that even where the task of infrared thermography in Table 130.7 (C)(15)(A)(a) states "No PPE Required"" in any condition, technicians cannot knowingly put themselves at risk, which is why the risk assessment is so critical.
Whether to wear arc-rated clothing and PPE for infrared thermography may in some cases now be a personal decision. Be aware that OSHA directs employers to supply required PPE and for employees to wear the supplied PPE, if hazards exist. A risk assessment can indicate whether such PPE is needed and the assessment needs to be properly documented. This is an example of why the user of NFPA 70E must be familiar with all of NFPA 70E Chapter 1 if they are performing tasks on electrical equipment.
Consider these questions when deciding whether or not to wear PPE:
- What would your life be like after a serious arc-flash incident? Would you be fully protected or would you suffer serious burn injuries?
- How would your family and friends be affected? How would your life change if you were disfigured or disabled?
- How certain can you be that there are no defects in the equipment about to be scanned?
The NFPA 70E Committee desires that anyone about to perform infrared thermography take that task as seriously as it deserves. With the introduction of light-weight arc-rated clothing and the lighter color windows in them, there really is no good reason not to wear some level of PPE. If it is truly not practical to wear the needed PPE, or if there is simply no available clearance, viewing windows should be considered.
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