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Perspectives in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Irrigation-Pipe-Associated Electrocution Deaths -- Washington

In Washington State, investigators recently reviewed death certificates of all persons killed by electrocution during 1970-1979 and of all farmers killed by electrocution during 1950-1979. Analysis showed that farmers are significantly more likely than non-farmers to die of accidental electrocution (1).

An electrocution was considered irrigation-pipe-associated (IPA) when the death certificate or a newspaper article provided sufficient information to conclude that the death was irrigation pipe associated or when the death certificate suggested IPA electrocution. A death was considered occupationally related when the death certificate specified the injury occurred at work.

During Washington's agricultural growing season, 30- and 40-foot lengths of 3-inch aluminum pipe are used to irrigate fields. Electrocutions occur when these pipes touch electrical lines at the periphery of the fields while being hand carried by workers. In accordance with the recommendation of the National Electrical Safety Code of the American National Standards Institute, the Washington State Safety Code requires electrical lines near roads in rural districts to be at least 18 feet above the ground at their lowest point (2,3). Even when electrical lines fully meet this requirement, workers may contact electrical lines when tilting irrigation pipes upwards to empty them of water, dirt, or small animals.

During 1950-1979, 42 Washington farmers were recorded as having died from electrocution; based on overall mortality for the age and sex group involved, only 18 deaths from electrocution would have been expected. IPA electrocutions accounted for 23 (53%) of the 42 deaths recorded among farmers in general and among specific classifications of agricultural workers (Table 1).

IPA electrocutions among farmers occurred more frequently during the 1970's than from 1950 to 1969. From 1950-1979, 91% of IPA electrocutions among farmers occurred from April through September (Figure 1).

Among farmers and non-farmers, IPA electrocutions during 1970-1979, compared with other electrocutions during those years, occurred most frequently in rural areas during planting and harvesting months. Ninety-three percent (28 of 30) of IPA electrocutions occurred from April through September, while 61% (72/118) of other electrocutions occurred during those months. Seventy-seven percent (23/30) of IPA electrocutions occurred among persons under 30 years of age, compared with 39% (46/118) non-IPA electrocutions. IPA electrocutions occurred more commonly than any other type of electrocution among persons under 20 years old (11/29, 38%).

Death certificates for 89 (59%) of 152 1970-1979 electrocutions specified that the lethal injury occurred at work. Most common among these occupational deaths were: 1) IPA electrocutions involving agricultural workers (18/89, 20%), and 2) electrical lines contacted by crane booms or other heavy equipment involving the equipment operators (18/89, 20%). Occupational groups among which fewer electrocutions occurred than among agricultural workers included: electrical linemen (12/89, 13%); electricians and construction workers (14/89, 16%); and tree trimmers (2/89, 2%). Reported by S Milham, MD, Div of Health, Washington State Dept of Social and Health Svcs; Hazard Evaluation and Technical Assistance Br, Div of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluation, and Field Studies, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: In Washington, irrigation pipes have been the most common source of all fatal human contact with electrical lines. From 1970 to 1979, IPA electrocutions accounted for 20% of all electrocutions, 38% of electrocutions among persons under 20 years of age, 20% of work-related electrocutions, and 80% of electrocutions among farmers. During that same period, IPA electrocutions accounted for 1,191 years of potential life lost before age 65 (an average of 39.7 years per person).*

Because a death was defined as work-related only when the death certificate specified the injury occurred at work, the proportion of occupationally related IPA electrocutions may have been underestimated. Probably all 30 IPA electrocutions from 1970 to 1979, not just the 18 specified on death certificates, occurred at work. Therefore, the proportion of occupationally related IPA electrocutions may have been as high as 30% (30/101).

Possible measures to prevent these electrocutions include:

  1. Education of the population at risk. Groups such as public utility companies and cooperative extension services have recognized the dangers of IPA electrocution and have advised caution when irrigation pipes are handled near electrical lines. All agencies and groups (including state and county health departments, utility companies, agriculture extension services, school districts, civic associations, and agricultural workers groups) in rural areas irrigated with metal pipes should be encouraged to remind agricultural workers of the life-threatening hazard of IPA electrocution.

  2. Changes in the method of irrigation. Irrigation pipes on wheels and "solid-set" pipes (buried pipes with sprinkler heads above the ground) may prevent many IPA electrocutions. Despite high initial costs, these methods are labor-efficient over time and are replacing hand-carried irrigation pipes on large farms and orchards.


  1. Milham S. Occupational mortality in Washington state, 1950-1979. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (in press).

  2. Washington Administrative Code. 296-44. WAC Safety Standards-Electrical Construction Code. Olympia, Washington: The Statute Law Committee, 1980;5:757.

  3. American National Standards Institute. National Safety Electrical Code, Part 2, Sections 20-28. "Safety Rules for the Installation and Maintanence of Overhead Supply and Communication Line." (IEEE) New York: American National Standards Institute, 1981.

  4. U.S. Bureau of the Census. Classified index of occupations and industries, 1960 Census of Population. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1960.

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