Electrocuted! A summary of electrocution incidents from around the world

Elephant with raised trunk
Shutterstock / Patrimonio Designs Ltd.

How do You keep up with the news? About 25 years ago, NFPA subscribed to a news clipping service. I received articles from a range of media sources with key words highlighted. Some provided useful information, others did not. Sometimes, there was just enough information to indicate that further digging might be worthwhile.

Technology evolved, and along came Google Alerts, an ongoing search based on key words that is far timelier. Other such services exist, but this is the one that I use.

I recently established a search for “electrocution” because of my interest in workplace safety, electrocutions and arc flash incidents. I receive a daily email report on electrocutions around the world.

Some articles indicate that the victim was recovering from “electrocution” in a hospital. Others victims were treated and released after being “electrocuted.” I referred to the Geneva-based International Electrotechnical Commission’s International Electrotechnical Vocabulary to confirm that the definition of electrocution is “a fatal electric shock.” I was using the term correctly, but a lot of media sources are not.

Here is a summary of incidents reported in September. While there were some electrocutions reported in the United States, the reports were overwhelmingly from elsewhere. The details are sparse, but they provide a reminder of how much safer we are in the United States because of our safety infrastructure.

The most stunning thing that I learned is how many elephants have been electrocuted in India and Pakistan. They are tall animals and their trunks give them reach beyond their height.

The National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) has minimum height requirements for overhead utility conductors, while the National Electrical Code (NEC) has minimum height requirements for service conductors and feeder conductors. Higher voltage conductors have greater height requirements. Highway traffic also affects height requirements. The NESC and NEC minimum height requirements are practical for our needs. They might be inadequate for protecting elephants; however, we thankfully do not have them roaming freely here.

In one case where two elephants were killed, they were eating bamboo that had come into contact with overhead conductors.

On another occasion, I read about a utility worker severely burned on an arm and a leg while making repairs to a transformer near the Kashmir region. The article referred to this worker as a “daily wager.” A search for this term indicates that a daily wager is a temporary worker who may only work for the day. In some areas, this is used to evaluate the skills of apprentices. However, this worker had been a daily wager since 1997. The article noted that this is the second time the worker has had a serious injury on the job. Why would a temporary worker be assigned this dangerous work? Clearly, they have a need for safe work practices and personal protective equipment (PPE). Regardless of whether the worker was performing utility maintenance or premises wiring maintenance, training and appropriate PPE should be required.

An electrician working at a palm oil facility in Malaysia came into contact with energized conductors, causing an arc flash. It is unclear how it happened, but he reported that the impact knocked him out. As a result of his injuries, he lost both arms below the elbow and his left leg.

An Indian couple was electrocuted in their home, which was constructed of sheet metal. At the time of the accident, it had been raining for several days. As noted in various news stories, the number of shocks and electrocutions rise when there are periods of extended rainfall, which seems to be a generally accepted conclusion. These reports say a lot about grounding, or the lack thereof.

A Sept. 18 article reported on two incidents in two days that resulted in four electrocutions in the Jhalawar district of India. Both involved electrocutions from contact with switches for water boost pumps used to irrigate crops. In one circumstance, the victim’s grandmother attempted to free him and was electrocuted as well. In the other case, a tenant attempted to free his landlady, and he was also electrocuted. It was the same scenario in the same neighborhood with the same number of victims. Ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection for personnel might have saved these four people. Internationally, shock protection is provided by residual-current devices. They are typically set to trip at 30 milliamperes (mA), rather than the 4–6 mA of a GFCI. Even at this higher trip level, four victims might have been saved.

Meanwhile, a 20-year-old man and his 40-year-old mother were electrocuted in Pakistan. Utility power had been interrupted, so the man took advantage of the outage to repair a water pump. When power was unexpectedly restored, he was electrocuted. Again, the mother tried to free her son. There is clearly a lack in public understanding that it is unsafe to touch someone who is in contact with energized parts.

In Pakistan, a 45-year-old man was electrocuted from a ceiling fan. There isn’t enough information available to determine if it was the result of a product failure or wiring issues. The NEC would require proper polarity and the use of an equipment grounding conductor in the circuit supplying the fan.

In the Philippines, a 19-year-old man was severely shocked when he came into contact with an exposed conductor on a flexible cord that was cord-and plug-connected to a power strip (relocatable power tap). He was taken to a hospital, where he died.

On Sept. 12, a woman was electrocuted by an electric patio heater at a restaurant that she owned in Brazil. The exact cause was not revealed in the article. However, if the branch circuit had been protected by GFCI protection for personnel, she might have survived.

On Sept. 13, another source reported three electrocutions in India on the same day. Two of these incidents involved fans. In one case, the victim was shocked while contacting a fan switch. In the other incident, the victim was electrocuted while repairing a conductor for a fan. The final incident involved repairs to a conductor for lighting used in a religious ceremony.

On Sept. 20, a 45-year-old man was severely shocked while trimming trees in Pakistan. The report indicated that overhead conductors were supported by the trees. Tree trimmers are at risk because utility conductors and service conductors often come into contact with trees. Over time, the branches tend to wear away the insulation. The tree trunk may eventually grow around the cable.

On Sept. 28, a 25-year-old electrician working on the roof of a hair salon in Australia was severely shocked. Photos of the facility do not show the presence of service conductors over the roof. He likely did not create an electrically safe work condition before working on the circuit.

On Sept. 28, three people were electrocuted in separate incidents in North Karachi, Pakistan. A 24-year-old woman was electrocuted while washing her laundry. A 40-year-old hotel restaurant employee was electrocuted at work. Finally, a 26-year-old was electrocuted in a residential building. Three electrocutions in the same area on the same day is concerning.

Lessons learned

What were my takeaways from these reports? Electrocutions happen much more frequently than I thought. Some articles reported two or more incidents in the same day. Some of the incidents—such as a bystander trying to free a victim who was being electrocuted and then became a second victim—can easily happen here. The principal advantage we have is our safety infrastructure governed by the NESC for utility installations and the combination of the NEC and NFPA 70E for premises wiring. Problems identified in the field have resulted in Code changes. We are also protected by installation inspections. We recognize that problems occur, and we need to learn from what has happened to prevent them from happening again.

About the Author

Mark Earley

Mark Earley, P.E., is an electrical engineer. Retired from the National Fire Protection Association, he was secretary of the National Electrical Code Committee for 30 years and is president of Alumni Code Consulting Group.

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