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Update: Work-Related Electrocutions Associated with Hurricane Hugo -- Puerto Rico

When Hurricane Hugo struck the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico on September 18, 1989, thousands of residents of low-lying and flood-prone areas escaped harm because of timely hurricane warnings and effective evacuation (1). In the postimpact phase of the storm, however, other dangers threatened persons making repairs in the devastated areas. Approximately 85% of the island was without power because of damage to power lines and poles. Energized downed power lines presented hazards for electric company repair crews and for members of communities affected by the hurricane. Thus far, six persons (all males) have been electrocuted in separate incidents attributable to hazards resulting from the hurricane (1). Five of these deaths were work-related.

In response to a request from the commonwealth epidemiologist, Puerto Rico Department of Health, a Fatal Accident Circumstances and Epidemiology (FACE) team from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), CDC, assisted local health officials in the investigation of the five occupational electrocutions. A brief summary of the cases follows.

Case 1. At 12 noon on September 20, a 35-year-old tree trimmer/crew leader was electrocuted when he contacted a dangling, energized power line. The line, believed to be de-energized, was receiving "feedback" electric current from portable emergency generators operated by local businesses.

Case 2. At 3:30 p.m. on September 21, a 42-year-old electric lineman with 19 years' experience was preparing to work on a power line believed to be de-energized. The line, however, was receiving "feedback" current from portable generators in use in the area, and the worker was electrocuted when he touched the line.

Case 3. At 8:45 p.m. on September 22, a 38-year-old electric lineman with 14 years' experience was electrocuted when he contacted a dangling, energized 4800-volt power line while working in a dark, wooded area.

Case 4. At 8:30 p.m. on September 28, a 30-year-old electric lineman with 6 years' experience was electrocuted while working from a bucket truck at night. He inadvertently activated and was unable to disengage the control lever that regulates movement of the bucket, resulting in movement of the bucket and worker into an adjacent energized power line.

Case 5. At 6:30 p.m. on September 28, a 28-year-old meter-reader who had been assisting a line crew was electrocuted when he touched an energized metal clothesline wire at a private residence. One of the metal poles supporting the clothesline wire was in contact with the metal roof of the house, on which an energized electrical line that had been torn from a pole was lying.

Based on the findings of the FACE investigation, recommendations were made to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents. Reported by: P Rechani, Director, Instituto de Sciencias Forenses de Puerto Rico, San Juan; JV Rullan, MD, Commonwealth Epidemiologist, Div of Epidemiology, Puerto Rico Dept of Health. Div of Safety Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Maintenance and repair of electric power lines is inherently hazardous, and U.S. electric linemen suffer an average electrocution rate of 33.4 per 100,000 workers per year--more than four times that of electricians, who suffer the second highest rate of electrocutions (8.3 per 100,000 workers) (2). This hazard greatly increases when repairs are conducted under conditions of widespread damage to electrical transmission and distribution systems, such as in the aftermath of a natural disaster like Hurricane Hugo. For example, in an effort to restore power as quickly as possible, experienced electric company personnel worked shifts of greater than or equal to 24 hours, often in darkness and inclement weather. In addition, to expand the work force, electric company retirees and workers whose job responsibilities normally do not involve work near energized lines volunteered to assist in the power restoration effort. These workers may have been insufficiently familiar with appropriate safety precautions.

The use of portable generators to provide emergency power after natural disasters is of particular concern because of the increased potential hazard posed by electric lines assumed to be disconnected or de-energized. At least two of the work-related fatalities reported here were attributable, in part, to this hazard.

To assist in the prevention of similar incidents in the future, the following recommendations were provided by the NIOSH investigators to the Puerto Rico Department of Health and to electric company officials:

  • Electric company officials must assure that standard safe operating procedures are followed at all times by all employees; these procedures include inspection of each worksite to identify all potential hazards, verification that lines have been de-energized, grounding (on both the line and load sides of the work area) all lines that will be accessed, use of appropriate personal protective equipment (e.g., insulating gloves), and use of adequate portable lighting in low light or darkness.

  • Company emergency preparedness plans should be reviewed and revised as necessary based on the experience with Hurricane Hugo and the deaths of these five workers.

Because at least one other (apparently nonoccupational) electrocution occurred in Puerto Rico after the storm, the following recommendations for the prevention of electrocutions were also developed for the community and provided to local officials.

  • A comprehensive electric safety education program should be instituted, emphasizing the hazards posed by downed power lines, by "feedback" energy in presumably de-energized lines, and by metal objects in the vicinity of utility lines. All power lines should be treated as energized and potentially dangerous.

  • Automatic disconnect devices that prevent "feedback" electricity from generators should be installed in all locations where portable emergency generators are likely to be used.

  • If automatic disconnect devices are unavailable when portable emergency generators are used, main circuit breakers must be placed in the "off" position or main fuse links pulled to isolate the energized circuit from the community utility system.

These recommendations may be applicable to other areas affected by Hurricane Hugo and by other disasters that involve widespread destruction of electric power lines and distribution systems. NIOSH has notified local officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the statesaffected by Hurricane Hugo of the results of this FACE investigation and has provided them with appropriate recommendations.

References

  1. CDC. Deaths associated with Hurricane Hugo--Puerto Rico. MMWR 1989;38:680-2.

  2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. National traumatic occupational fatalities, 1980-1985. Cincinnati: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1989; DHHS publication no. (NIOSH)89-116.

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