Personal protective equipment (PPE) is sometimes the only thing standing between an electrical worker and serious injury. The simplest item, like an arc-rated rubber glove or an insulating sleeve, can ensure every employee goes home safely at the end of the day.
In order to realize the benefits of PPE, workers need to know what PPE to wear, when and under what circumstances. Employers must provide the equipment and training on proper usage. Everyone must do their part to create a culture of safety, in which wearing the right PPE becomes a habit.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of guidance in the industry. Two overlapping authorities can help us choose PPE for electrical work. First, there are the relevant OSHA regulations for construction and for general industry. Then there's NFPA 70E: Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. Due to the detailed, systematic nature of the NFPA electrical safety codes, we'll start there.
What NFPA 70E Says About Choosing Electrical PPE
The NFPA offers not one but two systems for determining what sort of PPE will give employees adequate protection from shocks and burns. The Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace instructs managers to choose one method and go with it (instead of combining the two methods).
The first method is to simply consult the tables in part 130.7 of the NFPA 70E. In the 2018 edition of the code, Table 130.7(C)(15)(a) details the category of PPE electrical workers should wear when working various voltage levels in AC systems. Table 130.7(C)(15)(b) offers the same information for DC systems.
Finally, users must consult Table 130.7(C)(15)(c), which describes the four categories of PPE as detailed in the previous two tables. All of these resources are available in Article 130 of the 2018 NFPA 70E codes, which you can access for free from the NFPA website.
The second method requires engineers to complete an Incident Energy Analysis. This test calculates the energy that an arc flash could inflict on a worker in terms of calories per centimeter squared, specifically in the context of a given task. With the results of the analysis in hand, users can consult Table 130.5(G), located in Article 130 of NFPA 70E, to determine the PPE workers must wear while performing that task.
The “table method” has the advantage of being quick and relatively straightforward. The Incident Energy Analysis method, on the other hand, provides more detailed PPE choices.
Regardless of the method used to choose PPE, Tables 130.7(C)(15)(a) and 130.7(C)(15)(b) provide arc-flash boundaries for common electrical systems. This is the radius within which all who enter must wear the designated PPE.
Both of the above methods of choosing PPE require access to NFPA 70E, which you can find on the NFPA website.
OSHA Standards on PPE in Electrical Work
Safety standards from OSHA echo the underlying principles of NFPA 70E without going into as great detail. In general industry (that is, not construction), employers should consult 29 CFR 1910.335(a)(1)(i) to ensure proper PPE usage and full compliance with legally-binding OSHA regulations.
This standard, located within Subpart S of Part 1910, states, “Employees working in areas where there are potential electrical hazards shall be provided with, and shall use, electrical protective equipment that is appropriate for the specific parts of the body to be protected and for the work to be performed.”
Standard 1910.335 goes on to address specific conditions: “Employees shall wear nonconductive head protection wherever there is a danger of head injury from electric shock or burns.” This standard also states, “Employees shall wear protective equipment for the eyes or face wherever there is danger of injury to the eyes or face from electric arcs or flashes or from flying objects resulting from electrical explosion.”
But what other kinds of PPE are the standards talking about?
PPE Class Ratings in the OSHA Standards
This section describes six classes of insulating gloves and sleeves as well as non-clothing protective equipment, such as rubber blankets and line hose. Compare this to NFPA 70E, which only considers insulating clothing to be PPE proper and addresses rubber blankets and other such equipment in a separate chapter.
In the construction industry, electrical protective equipment is detailed in standard 1926.97. These rules mirror the class ratings for PPE found in 1910.137. Classes include 00, 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4. The higher the number, the higher the voltage the PPE is rated to withstand.
Ozone-resistant PPE is labeled Type II and items that don’t resist ozone are considered Type I.
Providing Appropriate PPE for Electrical Workers
Arc-rated, OSHA-compliant PPE is available from manufacturers like Protective Industrial Products (PIP), which offers the full range of NFPA-designated insulating and fire-resistant clothing. This includes gloves, sleeves, hoods, jackets, hard hats and arc shields in a variety of sizes.
Speaking of sizes, correct sizing for PPE is crucial. Employers must ensure that they provide PPE that fits their employees precisely. When PPE is too loose, it interferes with work and can fall off at a crucial moment. When it’s too tight, workers can’t fit into it in the first place and their movements may be restricted. There’s also the employee’s comfort to consider because uncomfortable PPE can tempt the wearer to disregard protocol and go without.
Strict Use of Code-Approved PPE Improves Safety
According to NFPA 70E, PPE is literally the electrical worker's last line of defense. The document’s hierarchy of risk control lists the order in which stakeholders should attempt hazard-removal techniques and PPE comes in last, meaning PPE is the final protection employees can rely on to save them from electrical hazards at work.
That means PPE is your safety net. Don’t walk the wire without a net — instead, follow the rules set by OSHA and the NFPA to ensure safe, injury-free electrical work with every shift.
Disclaimer: This content does not constitute legal or professional advice for a particular case. When in doubt, consult a NFPA-certified electrical safety compliance specialist.