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Donnie Johnson: Story of An Arc Flash Survivor

By Kelsey Rzepecki

Donnie Johnson arc flash survivor

Thursday, August 12, 2004 started just like any other morning for electrical contractor Donnie Johnson. Except for one thing; Tampa, Florida, the city where he lived and worked, was bracing for Hurricane Charlie, and his job was to wire a large semi-trailer mounted generator to a giant frozen foods warehouse electrical system to prepare for it.

During the process, in a split second, Donnie suffered third-degree burns down to the muscle on both arms and hands, and second-degree burns to his face, head and neck from an arc flash explosion. The heat of the arc blast seared through him at a temperature the burn unit doctors told him was seven times as hot as the sun’s surface. When his wife came to the accident scene, she could only identify him by recognizing his boots sitting near his stretcher in the ambulance.

What is an Arc Flash?

An arc flash is an electrical explosion that produces intense heat and light at a rapid rate. OSHA standards recommend that those performing electrical work wear protective clothing that does not ignite in the event of an arc flash blast. Arc flashes are not always spontaneous. They can occur from tool contact or even conductive dust or corrosion build up.

Donnie acknowledges that his severe injuries were preventable if he had been following safety procedures by wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE). An electrician for almost two decades, Donnie miraculously survived and now devotes a big part of his life to telling his story in hopes of saving lives by advocating for the importance of safety through his website Donnie’s Accident.

“This is about my personal experiences before, during and since the accident. Also how it affects you and those who care about and depend on you…all of this happened because I wasn't wearing my safety gear,” says Donnie.

According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, more than 300 workers die from on-the-job electrical injuries each year. PPE serves as a last line of defense and plays a major factor in differentiating between an electrical event a person walks away from and one that requires months of painful healing.

In an email conversation with Donnie, he relayed, “If I can make one guy use his PPE then I’ve done something! Jobs are dangerous enough out there without adding to it by not following safety procedures or wearing PPE!”

Reading Labels & Wearing PPE: The Key to Accident Prevention

Once the wiring was in place and terminated, it was at this point, Donnie said, where he should have reached for his PPE. Instead, he thought, “What could possibly happen as long as I am careful?” and “all that gear is so hot and bulky.”

He also neglected to read the warning label on the motor rotation meter he was using, stating it was not to be used on live circuits. He checked the electrical rotation on the 480 volt generator, fully energized to get an accurate reading. He opened the electrical cabinet panel, connected the first two clips, but when attempting to clip the third, the meter failed and blew a puff of carbon into the electrical gear.

Donnie said, “…As I was being blown to the ground I actually saw a two to three foot, ball of white light or basically a ball of lightning.” As people ran toward him, he was starting to realize just how badly he had been injured by their reactions. His surgeries and recovery lasted almost two years, and as he points out repeatedly on his website, all because he didn’t take less than a minute to put on his arc flash PPE.

Luckily, new PPE technologies are improving comfort and functionality to better protect workers. Recent innovations in PPE are making it easier than ever to better protect workers from electrical injuries. Lighter-weight arc flash suits and vented and lift-front arc flash face shields are just a few items that use high-quality materials and features to make a difference in worker comfort.

Make sure employees properly protect themselves by wearing the correct personal protective equipment rated for the job. When equipment has arc flash warning labels, employers and workers can refer to Table 130.5(G) in NFPA 70E 2018 to assist in choosing arc-rated and other PPE. Otherwise, use the incident energy analysis method for selecting arc-rated clothing and PPE. Note that these two methods are not compatible and can cause issues if they are mixed.

Life After Donnie's Arc Flash Explosion Accident

After two years of rehabilitation, Donnie was back to work in the office at the beginning of 2006 and has been with the same electrical contractor, Borrell Electric Company, for over 20 years. He and his wife also advocate for workplace safety around the U.S. through Donnie’s Accident video, serving as a popular safety training tool worldwide.

How’s this celebrity status feel? In an email exchange, Donnie said, “I’m very proud that safety managers around the world are using my video as part of their employee training. Even with full safety training, it is hard to fight complacency… I hope I can make a difference and with all good intentions, open some eyes. Accidents will happen, but if I had been wearing my PPE I would have probably only gone to the hospital for a checkup and minor injuries. I’m no safety expert, but I try to provide an example of what could happen if you don't follow your safety procedures, and I was lucky!”

Reinforce Electrical Safety with Visual Communication

Although Donnie’s injuries were electrical in nature, many professions rely on visual communication to warn of arc flash or LO/TO danger, whether you’re a plumber, a carpenter or a mason. Reliable equipment identification, electrical and arc flash safety labels are essential to effectively warn workers and visitors of fatal hazards.

Easily design and print arc flash and electrical safety labels any time you need them, onsite or in the field with the versatile DuraLabel Toro. This printer also serves as an excellent facility-wide industrial labeling system to print signs and labels for all kinds of applications and environmental conditions indoors and out.

To reinforce safety, design an electrical safety training program. NFPA 70E training remains the best option for worker safety and compliance, helping to contribute to a workplace culture of safety. Conduct an arc flash risk assessment and create your own NFPA-compliant labels with guidance from our arc flash labeling guide. It’s important to periodically evaluate your facility for electrical safety and ensure all arc flash labels are up to date to keep workers safe and your facility operating smoothly.