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Donnie Johnson: Story of An Arc Flash Survivor

By Sally Murdoch

Donnie Johnson, arc flash survivor, and his wife

Twelve years ago, August 12 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 connect a large electrical generator to a giant frozen foods warehouse facility in preparation for it. An electrician for almost two decades, he had told his wife just before they married, “As long I have these (hands), we will always have money.”

All of this came to an abrupt halt when Donnie, husband and father of two, suffered third degree burns down to the muscle on both arms and hands, and second-degree burns to his face, head and neck due to an arc flash explosion. He acknowledges that his severe injuries were preventable had he been following the safety procedures and wearing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).

The heat of the arc blast seared through him in a split second 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.

It’s important to note that while Donnie miraculously survived, he has devoted a big part of his life to telling his story. Why? In his own words, “I’m not offering ‘arc flash’ education or providing safety rules or guidelines, I am simply telling what could happen if you don’t follow your safety procedures,” he writes on 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 to me because I wasn't wearing my safety gear.”

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, May Have Prevented This Accident

As a service electrician, Donnie was wiring a large, semi-trailer mounted generator to an electrical system. He had the wiring in place and terminated. It was at this point, Donnie said, where he should have reached into his fully stocked PPE bag. Instead, he thought, “What could possibly happen as long as I am careful?” and “all that gear is so hot and bulky.”

The meter he had been using for several months to check rotation was not a phase rotation meter but a motor rotation meter. He neglected to read the warning label, 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 as he attempted to clip the third, the meter failed and blew a puff of carbon into the electrical gear.

Donnie said, “This is the equivalent of throwing a cup of water into the electrically energized gear….The carbon set off a carbon arc between the three phases in the switch gear, shorting all three phases together and causing an explosion with an arc flash or blast. All of this happened in a split second. 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.”

The loud explosion from the erupting heat can cause heat or metals to be inhaled into the lungs and solidify. He could only hear a sizzling noise. The only other workers had escaped the scene when the explosion happened, so he was alone. In shock, he pulled himself out of the darkened building, with his first thought being how he was going to get the power back on. As people ran toward him, he was starting to realize just how badly he had been injured by their reactions. Although he was conscious, with burns as severe as his were, the explosion damaged his small nerve endings, causing him not feel the pain yet. He asked a worker to call his wife and tell them he’d be transported to Tampa General Hospital as he couldn’t put his hands in his pockets to retrieve his phone.

Paramedics arrived and cut his clothing away from his body. At the hospital, doctors inserted a breathing tube because the swelling from the burns was making his wind pipe swell shut. Doctors then made incisions the entire length of each arm in order to relieve the swelling.

Over the next few weeks, surgeons grafted skin to his arm. He developed an E. Coli infection in his lungs, the first of many infections. With skin being the main protector from infection, the burns brought Donnie's healing process to a virtual standstill. He developed pneumonia and blood infections. A surgeon removed about a one-inch section of his trachea. He developed an infection and it ruptured the stitches that held the re-section together. He had a tracheotomy, with a tube inserted to bypass the surgical site to allow it to heal. Then, two months later, another surgery was performed to close the tracheotomy opening.

He had surgery on his hand to relieve scar bands and almost lost his thumb. His wind pipe was also collapsing from scar tissue caused by the breathing tube being in for so long. They found he was allergic to one of the medicines which was causing complete organ failure. His only source of nourishment was an IV drip.

Split-Second Arc Flash Explosion Led to Two Years of Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation to build the atrophied muscles would take over a year and a half of therapy. Donnie was 165 lbs. upon entering the hospital. His severe pancreatitis and fear of how his digestive system would react to food made eating impossible, and after a month and a half in a coma, he dropped 50 lbs. His arms and legs were the same size as his 9-year-old son’s, including the thick bandaging. The pain from the actual burns subsided, but the graft sites on his legs still caused intense pain.

All the while, the east coast of Florida was being ravaged by hurricanes Francis and Jeanie. Donnie’s 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.

Life After Donnie’s Arc Flash Explosion Accident

Donnie started back to work in the office at the beginning of 2006. Today, he is closing in on his 22nd year with the same electrical contractor, Borrell Electric Company, where he was recently promoted to Service Department Manager. He and his wife also present workplace safety around the U.S. Since releasing Donnie’s Accident video, he has received emails from over 150 countries and 150,000 unique visitors.

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!”

“When someone complains about the safety gear being hot, uncomfortable or too bulky, I pull up my sleeves and tell them, “it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable than living with this for the rest of your life…If you make it.”

Arc Flash Visual Communication Is Half the Battle

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. Graphic Products specializes in both premade and custom arc flash labeling, best done with a thermal transfer systems, such as the DuraLabel Toro. As well as an arc flash guide developed by Graphic Product partner EasyPower, we have a guide specifically on arc flash labeling.