Danger Overhead

Power lines are a threat to workers in many industries--not just in construction. And the fatality rate in these incidents is high.

THE biggest electrical threat to workers is no secret: Power lines, especially overhead power lines, are Public Enemy Number One. Contact with power lines is killing about 133 American workers each year--mostly but not entirely in the construction industry, with victims working mostly but not entirely for small businesses, said Michael G. Clendenin, executive director of the Electrical Safety Foundation International in Rosslyn, Va.

Federal fatality statistics also prove that, while electrical injuries are not as common as many other types of occupational injury, they are disproportionately fatal when they do occur. "It shows that by far, the biggest electrical hazard on the job is the overhead power line," Clendenin said.

ESFI recently printed 5,000 copies of a new "Look Up! Look Down! Look Out!" brochure. Produced in cooperation with OSHA and NIOSH and endorsed by the National Safety Council, the brochure includes a message from ESFI spokesman Cliff Meidl, who was severely injured in 1986 when a jackhammer he was using struck a buried power line. After numerous surgeries and a long recovery, Meidl earned a spot in kayaking on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team and carried the American flag during the opening ceremonies.

The brochure includes a power line safety quiz, phone numbers, and Web addresses for OSHA, NFPA, NSC, the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health (eLCOSH), the Construction Safety Council, and the Dig Safely program begun in 1996 by the federal Office of Pipeline Safety.

One striking fact about incidents involving human contact with power lines is that they happen in a wide assortment of situations. Landscapers, miners, tree trimmers, billboard and outdoor sign company employees, plumbers, farmers, excavators, dump truck drivers, mobile crane operators, mobile television news crews, and even workers visiting a site only briefly to make a delivery can be at risk. "You have somebody that's unrelated to the construction work itself . . . who might stumble into that environment, and yet it's called a construction accident," Clendenin said. "What we wanted to do is put out something that'll at least grab the attention of somebody who's going to work outdoors."

Clendenin said this brochure is the first in a series from ESFI that will address major workplace hazards.

Power Line Safety Resources

Recommended Controls
Analyzing BLS data on occupational electrical injuries from 1992 through 1998, electrical engineers James C. Cawley and Gerald T. Homce of the Electrical Safety Section of NIOSH's Pittsburgh Research Laboratory concluded electrical incidents caused nearly one death and an average of 13 lost workday injuries daily.

They noted electrical burn and shock injuries were highest for construction, manufacturing, and services industries during those years, but construction was hit especially hard: It accounted for 44 percent of all fatal electrical injuries even though its personnel comprised just 7 percent of the U.S. workforce. ("Occupational electrical injuries in the United States, 1991-1998, and recommendations for safety research," Journal of Safety Research 34 (2003), pp. 241-248.)

Cawley and Homce advocated reducing workers' direct exposure to electric arc energy, developing better electrical hazard training and recognition, persuading affected workers of the benefits of effective PPE for the hazards, good practices such as maintaining safe work distances and using nonconductive materials, and modifying vehicles such as boom trucks so operators' exposure to hazards would be reduced.

In an interview, they said their current project is analyzing underground miners' electric arc hazards and recommending tools, protective clothing, meters, and other safeguards by the end of 2005. With MSHA's help, they want this information to be included in mandatory training given to miners and qualified persons. There is no electric arc regulation in effect for underground mining, which also is not covered by NFPA's 70E Standard for Electrical Safety Requirements for Employee Workplaces, Hawley said.

"There are a number of good, practical things that could be done out of 70E that the mining industry could adopt," he said, citing PPE such as arc-rated faceshields and flame-resistant clothing. "There are progressive companies out there that are adopting this sort of thing."

A NIOSH study of 1990-1999 electrical accidents in mining found electricity was the fourth-leading cause of death despite being the 14th leading cause of injuries. About half of the 1,926 accidents occurred during electrical maintenance, and about 20 percent of the 75 electrical fatalities during the period involved high-reaching mobile equipment--indicating the role played by overhead power lines, Cawley wrote. ("Electrical Accidents in the Mining Industry, 1990-1999," IEEE Transactions on Industry Applications, Vol. 39, No. 6, November/December 2003.)

Electrical safety injuries and hazards are similar for underground mining and construction, Cawley and Homce said. Injuries after contact with a power line are high in both--58 percent of the electrical injuries in underground mining are contact-subsequent, Homce said. This argues for a warning device that alerts a crew when contact has been made and a vehicle's frame is energized. NIOSH developed one about two years ago, but it has not been produced commercially, he said.

Consumer Hazards, Fatalities
Not all of the power line fatalities occurring in this country are occupational, of course. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recorded more than 300 deaths in the United States between 1990 and 1998 from electrocution when an antenna or pole someone was holding touched a high-voltage line. The commission said nearly 150 more electrocutions occurred during the same period from ladders contacting a power line. In 2002, CPSC estimated about 200 consumer product-related electrocution deaths were occurring each year, although this total was much lower than the roughly 600 deaths annually during the 1970s, it said.

The agency urged consumers to take these precautions:

  • Keep all objects--including masts, poles, ladders, tools, and toys--far away from power lines at all times.
  • If you are taking down or moving an antenna, be aware of new power lines that have been put up since the antenna was first installed.
  • Never assume an overhead power line is electrically insulated. Always assume that contact with any line can be lethal.
  • Never place a ladder anywhere near an electrical power line.
  • Position non-metal ladders (such as fiberglass) at a height and location that prevents the possibility you or they can contact a power line.
  • Keep the distance from an antenna or pole to the power line at least 1 1/2 times the height of the antenna or pole.
  • Properly ground all masts in accordance with electrical codes.
  • Be aware you can be electrocuted by touching a power line directly or by touching a conductive material (such as a metal ladder, antenna, pipe, kite) and, at the same time, the earth or any grounded item (such as metal siding or a downspout).
  • Keep away from all downed power lines. A power line that touches the ground can shock or kill you even if you do not touch it. The electrical current can travel through the ground and into your body.

Power Line Safety Resources

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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