The difference between arc flash working distance and approach distance

blog author iconJon Travis
date icon2021 / 11 / 30
blog views icon7332
The difference between arc flash working distance and approach distance

If you work with electricity, then you are probably well aware of the hazards (arc flash and shock) but something you might not be so comfortable with is the safe limits of approach boundaries and what is referred to as the working distance.

In my experience, these distances seem to back seat to the incident energy level of an arc flash or the voltage level of a potential shock hazard but they are critical in determining one's safety. 

In fact, if they are ignored or misinterpreted then the risk of injury is definitely going to go up.

In this article, we will go over what each of these distances actually means and why they are important to you or anyone who is working on or near exposed energized electrical parts.



Where can I find these numbers?

Most industrial facilities have gotten around to completing an arc flash incident energy analysis and posted labels (or stickers) on all of the electrical equipment. 

The CZA Z462 :21 Table 1A is a great resource for both a restricted approach boundary table and a limited approach boundary table.

arc flash boundary table

If the engineer followed the recommendations in CSAZ462 workplace electrical safety then each label should have listed the following:

  • working distance;
  • arc flash boundary;
  • limited approach boundary; and 
  • the restricted approach boundary.

arc flash label

Working distance

So what is arc flash working distance? The working distance is in reference to the arc flash incident energy and it is actually the distance that you are assumed to be standing at while working. 

You see, distance is a key component to calculating an arc flash, so the engineer needs to make an educated guess as to where someone might be when an arc flash happens. 

Since most arc flashes occur when someone is performing work on a prospective piece of equipment it only makes sense to calculate the arc flash at that assumed working distance.

The important thing to remember is that if you were working on a piece of equipment and you were closer than the assumed working distance you would be exposed to a greater arc flash incident energy level than what is posted on the label. 

Conversely, if you were able to take a few steps back from the equipment and continue your work (maybe with a broomstick... just kidding) then you would be exposed to an arc flash of much less magnitude.

Arc flash boundary

The arc flash boundary is the distance away from an arc flash where someone would be able to receive a second-degree burn. 

Sounds crazy but that's what it is. 

They used to call it the arc flash protection boundary until someone pointed out that it did not protect anyone from anything (well maybe third-degree burns).

But how do you determine the arc flash boundary? This is where an arc flash study comes in, a study will highlight on each piece of equipment the exact distance to be away from in order to setup the correct arc flash boundary marking.

There are two important takeaways from this. 

One, set up barricades to keep bystanders outside of the arc flash hazard boundary limits.

Two, add some distance to whatever the label says because I wouldn't want anyone standing where they can get a second-degree burn.

Arc flash boundary vs limited approach boundary

So, what is the difference between arc flash boundary and limited approach boundary? As shown in the table 1A above, the limited approach barrier is based on a voltage range where the arc flash boundary is based on the hazard level, the higher the level the further away the distance.

An important factor to note is that you should use the higher of the two distance numbers to setup the barricade. Example if the arc flash boundary is 1.5ft and limited approach boundary is 3.5ft use the limited approach boundary distance to setup a barricade.



Restricted approach boundary

Electricians Gauntlet Class

The restricted approach boundary can be defined as the furthest distance away from exposed energized conductors that an electrician can come without wearing rubber insulated gloves. For the restricted approach boundary distance in Canada refer to CSA Z462 table 1A listed above, a similar table can also be found in NFPA70E.

Well, the boundary is imaginary so there really is nothing stopping them from crossing it without gloves but it's definitely not recommended.

Air acts as an insulator, so that's why you don't see lightning bolts shooting out of the power lines while you drive down the street. 

But you don't necessarily need to come in contact with those power lines for it to arc across and give you a shock, you just need to come within a certain distance. 

This distance is the restricted approach boundary (with a little bit of a safety factor built-in I'm sure).


Limited approach boundary

The limited approach boundary is similar to the arc flash boundary. 

If you have no business being anywhere near exposed energized parts then stay out of this area.

Really all an electrician needs to remember is every time you are exposing energized parts you should be setting up barricades to keep unwanted people away. 

Essentially the limited approach boundary is the distance at which unqualified workers should be at a minimum, if the limited approach boundary is lower than the arc flash boundary the arc flash boundary distance is where the barricades need to be setup.

I mean why wouldn't you want to do this anyway, it'd be great, no supervisor breathing down your neck, and no operations team asking you every two minutes if you are done yet! 

Just put up the barricades and be done with it.

What boundary do I use for barricades?

Now that you know the correct boundary to use its time to setup the barricade. So how do you mark an arc flash boundary? Electrical safety barriers come in different sizes, some companies rely on floor tape while others use cones and rope to block off the area completely.

A key factor is that no matter which material you use for the arc flash boundary barricades ensure that your team knows exactly what the electrical safety perimeter barriers means. This could be done by via a toolbox topic or by providing your team with arc flash & electrical safety training.

Why do my labels have the prohibited approach boundary?

Because you have old labels. 

In the latest version of the standards (CSAZ462 or NFPA70E) they dropped the use of prohibited approach boundary. 

This was mainly due to the fact that it made no difference to the end-user. 

Electricians didn't have a use for the number, it didn't change the PPE they wore or how and what tools they used. 

So just take a black magic marker and scratch them all out if you want.

Get the right training to help prevent electrical injuries

Wrapping things up

Hopefully, now you can see the importance of understanding the different boundaries and limits of approach provided on your arc flash labels

They are much more important than most people give them credit for and you are going to want to make sure anyone who works with electricity at your workplace is familiar with their use and understands the differences between them.



I hope this article has helped explain the difference between arc flash working distance and approach distance.

Do you know anyone else that would benefit from this blog? Use the share buttons below to share the content. 

If you have any questions, you can always reach out to me at

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Comments (1)
  1. electricians in coachella valley electricians in coachella valley
    Thanks Jon for telling the differences.
    James Tourje, CEO
    1. Erling Hesla Erling Hesla
      Thank you Jon, for your clear and concise explanation. You make it easy to understand.
      Erling Hesla, P.E.