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When it comes to arc flash safety, nothing may be more important to qualified electrical workers than their ability to interpret the information found on Arc Flash Warning labels.

It is employer’s responsibility to provide employees with the information and training they need to safely perform electrical tasks. Part of this responsibility is ensuring that arc flash hazard equipment warning labels are in place, and that employees have the information necessary to select the correct level of PPE, and set-up appropriate arc flash boundaries.

The warning labels are required to display specific information such as the nominal voltage of the equipment, the arc flash boundary distance, and the available incident energy at the prescribed working distance.

One of the more easily confused concepts is "working distance". Working distance is described in IEEE 1584, a guide commonly used for performing arc flash incident energy and boundary calculations. IEEE 1584 defines working distance as “the dimension between the possible arc point and the head and body of the worker positioned in place to perform the assigned task”.

To be clear on how to properly interpret the working distance, let’s take a closer look at the IEEE 1584 definition

  1. The possible arc point could vary based on the equipment and work being performed, but is generally considered to be the point at which the MCC bucket or breaker attaches to the bus bars, inside or near, the back of the equipment.
  2. The position of the worker in place to perform the task is the distance from the electrical panel needed to perform the necessary work task. This distance includes the arms extended a comfortable length to use hand tools or test equipment.

Why is it important to understand the working distance?

Let’s say we are looking at the pictured arc flash equipment warning label (figure 1) which has an incident energy of 17.2 cal/cm^2 flash hazard at 18 inches. This simply means that if a person were standing in front of the panel (normal position to perform the assigned task), and an arc flash were to occur, the person would receive 17.2 cal/cm^2 of thermal energy on their head and body.


Figure 1



Reducing the distance increases the heat

As we get closer to the point of the arc the incident energy increases by the square of the distance. If we don’t plan for this the PPE our electrical worker is wearing could be insufficient.  For instance, if we decrease the distance to the potential arc source by half, the incident energy could increase four times the original level. Example: an flash arc hazard is estimated to be 3 cal/cm^2 at an 18 inches working distance becomes 18 cal/cm^2 at a 10 inch working distance as you can see this is a significant difference.

Figure 2


How is the working distance determined?

arc flash label safety - BCH Electrical Safety Consulting | Cleveland, Ohio

Figure 3

The working distance printed on an arc flash warning label was determined by the arc flash incident energy analysis performed by an electrical engineer. Default working distances are determined by using IEEE 1584 Table 3 which is based on the voltage class of the equipment. See figure 3.  However, Rozel typically chooses a conservative 18" working distances (regardless of voltage) for most facilities.