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Painter Electrocuted in North Carolina

FACE 88-04


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Division of Safety Research (DSR) is currently conducting the Fatal Accident Circumstances and Epidemiology (FACE) Project, which is focusing on selected work-related fatalities.

On September 1, 1987, a 28-year-old painter was electrocuted when the 40 foot aluminum extension ladder he and a co-worker were raising contacted a 7200 volt power line.


Officials of the Occupational Safety and Health Program for the State of North Carolina notified DSR concerning this fatality and requested technical assistance. This case has been included in the FACE Project. On November 18, 1987, a DSR research safety specialist collected incident data, photographed the site, interviewed a comparison worker and a surrogate for the victim, and discussed the incident with the OSHA compliance officer and a company representative.

Overview of Employer's Safety Program:

The employer is a small painting contractor which employs seven workers. The company has no written safety program. Safety training consists only of telling the workers to be careful.

Synopsis of Events:

On September 1, 1987, a painter (the victim) and three other workers were assigned the task of cleaning the outside brick of a convalescent home. The brick on the three story convalescent home was being prepared for eventual painting.

The crew of four workers were divided into two equal groups to work on opposite sides of the convalescent home. The victim and a co-worker were using a bleach solution to prepare the building brick for painting. A 40 foot aluminum extension ladder was used to reach the upper sections of the convalescent home. A three-phase 7200 volt overhead power line was located 31 feet above ground and 15 feet away from the convalescent home. Telephone lines, which were heavily covered with vines, ran directly below and parallel to the power lines. The telephone lines were located approximately 18 feet above ground.

The victim and co-worker, upon finishing cleaning one section, lowered the ladder and moved it to the next area to be cleaned. The victim, standing on the ground, held and balanced the ladder as the co-worker simultaneously climbed and raised the extension. The ladder, after being raised approximately 34 feet, tipped backwards and contacted the power line. The co-worker was knocked from the ladder and the victim, who provided a path to ground for the electrical current, was electrocuted.

The injured co-worker ran inside the convalescent home and summoned help. An on-duty nurse called the emergency rescue squad, which was located two blocks away, and went to aid the victim. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was administered until the rescue squad arrived. The victim was transported to the local hospital, three blocks away, where he was pronounced dead.

Cause of Death:

The coroner's report stated that the cause of death was electrocution.


Recommendation #1: Ladders used near energized power lines should be made of non-conductive materials.

Discussion: OSHA Standard 1926.450(a)(11) states that "portable metal ladders shall not be used for electrical work or where they may contact electrical conductors. " The aluminum ladder used in this incident was conductive. If a ladder made of non-conductive material had been used in this case, the fatality might have been prevented.

Recommendation #2: The employer should develop a safety program designed to recognize and avoid hazards (e.g., electrical overhead power lines).

Discussion: The danger of overhead power lines appears to be obvious; however, contact with overhead power lines and the subsequent occupationally-related fatalities continue. OSHA Standard 1926.21(b)(2) states that "the employer shall instruct each employee in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe conditions and the regulations applicable to his work environment to control or eliminate any hazards or other exposure to illness or injury." The company does not provide training in safe work procedures and does not have written safety rules. The tasks performed by workers should be evaluated and the hazards identified. A safety program should be developed which addresses these hazards.

Recommendation #3: To assure proper protection for anyone working near electrical power lines, arrangements should be made with the power company to de-energize the lines or cover the lines with insulating line hoses or blankets.

Discussion: Energized power lines in proximity to a work area constitute a safety hazard. Extra caution must be exercised when working near energized power lines. A safe distance between power lines and ladders, tools, or scaffolds should be maintained at all times. At least one state (California) requires that a six foot minimum clearance be maintained. The power line in this instance was within 15 feet horizontally from the convalescent home, but due to miscellaneous items in this area (e.g., air conditioner, natural gas main, and a retaining wall), a safe distance from the power lines could not be maintained. When this type of situation occurs, overhead power lines should be de-energized or covered with insulating equipment.

Recommendation #4: Utility companies should regularly inspect and clear right-of-ways for utility lines.

Discussion: The telephone lines in the area where the incident occurred were heavily covered with vines. The vine growth on the lower telephone lines may have obstructed the victim's and co-worker's vision and judgement in determining safe placement of the ladder. Utility companies should regularly inspect and clear right-of-ways for utility lines so unnecessary obstructions aren't encountered in work of this nature.

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