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Electrocution of a Truck Driver -- West Virginia

On October 15, 1982, a 28-year-old truck driver was pronounced dead on arrival at the emergency room of a West Virginia hospital. He had delivered a load of fabricated metal parts to the construction site of a 200,000-gallon water tank and was electrocuted while helping remove a ladder from his truck. Efforts to revive him by fellow workers, and later by emergency rescue workers, were unsuccessful.

A post-mortem examination identified two entrance electrical burns (one on the right ring finger, the other on the left middle finger) and one exit burn (on the sole of the right foot). No further evidence of injury or disease was found. Results of a toxicologic evaluation (including a blood-alcohol determination and a urinalysis for other drugs) were negative.

The Deputy Chief Medical Examiner of Northern West Virginia invited the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to provide technical assistance. Researchers visited the site and spoke with the owner of the construction firm, the job foreman, and other workers, including the operator of the crane that had removed the ladder; they also interviewed the worker's wife. The following sequence of events had occurred: a five-man crew had erected the tank to a height of 10 feet; the truck driver arrived on site (Figure 1) in late morning with a truckload of fabricated metal parts, including a 30-foot, steel-enclosed ladder; a 15-ton, cab-mounted crane was used to lift and transport parts from the delivery truck to the ground. While lifting the ladder from the truck, the crane operator paused because the ladder would not clear some welding generators located near the tank; in an effort to help, the truck driver left the truck and grasped the ladder with both hands to swing it over the generators; he was electrocuted when the crane cable contacted a 7,200-volt overhead power line; the crane operator became aware of the electrical contact when he saw flames leaping from the cable; seconds later the truck driver was found unconscious 20 feet from the generators.

The researchers concluded that five circumstances were involved in producing this fatal injury: (1) the crew supervisor was not present at the time of the accident; (2) high-voltage power lines near the worksite were neither insulated nor deenergized (insulation sleeves were later added); (3) the crane and the material to be lifted were located so close to the power lines that inadvertent contact with the lines was possible; (4) in lifting the ladder, the crane swung toward, rather than away from, the power lines; (5) the truck driver manually assisted the crane's movement of the metal ladder and apparently did not notice the close proximity of the crane to the power lines. Reversing any one of these circumstances may have averted the accident. Reported by JL Frost, MD, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for the State of West Virginia; Div of Safety Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: In terms of the data in Table V (Years of potential life lost, page 21), the truck driver's death resulted in 37 years of potential life lost before age 65, illustrating how accidents are a leading cause of lost years of potential life. Because accidents often kill the young, they contribute disproportionately to loss of potential years of life. Such accidents as this are frequent. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that at least 260 occupational electrocutions occurred in 1981 (1). Like the event described here, many are readily preventable. Measures that would have prevented this man's death are not difficult, elaborate, or costly. Dangerous operations can be carried out safely if thoughtful planning and careful supervision are observed.

The findings reported here were part of the pilot study on Fatal Accident Circumstances and Epidemiology (FACE) being conducted by NIOSH in collaboration with the medical examiners in West Virginia and adjacent states. This project is designed to determine whether epidemiologic research can identify causative factors in fatal accidents, the correction of which would facilitate prevention. Persons who wish to receive similar technical assistance are encouraged to contact the Director, Division of Safety Research, NIOSH, Morgantown, West Virginia, (304) 291-4595.


  1. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational injuries and illnesses in the United States by industry, 1981. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, Bulletin 2164, 1982.

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