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Electricity-Related Deaths on Lakes -- Oklahoma, 1989-1993

Drowning accounts for approximately 4200 deaths each year in the United States (1). Although electricity is documented infrequently as a cause of such fatalities, contact with electricity can result in death through temporary paralysis and drowning of persons who are swimming or wading, or through electrocution. From June 1989 through September 1993, five persons died on lakes in Oklahoma following contact or suspected contact with electrical currents. Four deaths occurred at two adjoining lakes in northeastern Oklahoma (lake A), and one at a lake in the southern part of the state (lake B). The five deaths occurred among males aged 13-50 years who were either swimming, working on or near docks, or working with electricity when they sustained fatal injuries. This report summarizes the investigation of these deaths by medical examiners (MEs) and the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH).

OSDH identified electricity-related deaths on lakes through its injury surveillance system, which includes information from hospital medical records, the Office of the State Medical Examiner, ambulance reports, department of public safety reports, newspaper clippings, and vital statistics (2). During July-September 1993, OSDH identified two deaths that resulted from contact with electrical currents at one lake with 4000 private and 120 commercial docks. Three additional deaths subsequently were identified for 1989-1993.

Case Reports

Case 1. On September 5, 1993, a 46-year-old man was scuba diving with a companion in lake A when he contacted a submergible water pump and lost consciousness underwater. His companion noted a blue softball-size ball of flame emitting from a pipe that contained the pump's power cables and an electrical sensation in the water. The companion retrieved the man and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation at the scene but was unsuccessful in reviving him. The ME listed the cause of death as electrocution.

Case 2. On July 27, 1993, a 13-year-old boy died after he jumped from a boat dock into lake A to swim; the dock lights were on at the time. He immediately surfaced and was screaming, then submerged and did not resurface. An adult who entered the water to assist the boy felt an electrical current and called to others to turn off the dock lights. Power company employees inspected the electrical system for the dock lights and identified a short in the wiring; the wiring was in contact with the dock's metal frame and transmitted sufficient electrical current into the water to cause a shock. The ME listed the boy's cause of death as drowning, possibly secondary to electrical shock.

Case 3. On July 24, 1991, a 50-year-old man was found lying unconscious on a boat dock at lake A. His son was electrically shocked when he attempted to revive the man. The man had been wearing wet socks and shoes, and an electrical short was detected in the dock's wiring. The ME listed the cause of death as electrocution.

Case 4. On December 8, 1989, a 32-year-old man and his co-workers were rewiring a water pump submerged in lake A and stringing electrical wire from the water pump up a hill to a relay station. When his co-workers were unable to locate him, they searched the area and found blood on rocks along the shoreline. A lake patrol diver found the man under 25 feet of water; he was alive and had a laceration above his right eye. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful. The ME listed the cause of death as drowning.

Case 5. On June 1, 1989, a 36-year-old man was installing a fuel pump in the engine compartment of a houseboat on lake B. His elbow contacted the wires of a broken light bulb that was connected to a 110-volt line from the boat dock, and he died at the scene. The ME listed the cause of death as low-voltage electrocution.

Follow-Up Investigation

As a result of these deaths, during January 1994, OSDH inspected 11 commercial docks that had the most severe deficiencies during a 1989 inspection and five randomly selected private docks at lake A. The inspection identified life-threatening violations, including failure to have grounded electrical systems or to have weatherproofed electrical boxes. Because of these violations, OSDH recommended that the local dam authority require electrical inspection of all commercial docks before issuing dock permits; terminate electrical service to docks that fail inspection until improvements were completed; require that commercial docks be inspected every 3 years; and require that private docks be inspected every 2 years. An inspection of 116 commercial docks at lake A in 1989 indicated that 96% violated the National Electrical Code and that ungrounded electrical systems were the most common violation (R. McElvany, OSDH, personal communication, 1994).

Reported by: F Jordan, MD, Office of the State Medical Examiner; S Mallonee, MPH, M Reddish-Douglas, MPH, C Price, MPH, R Vincent, PhD, M Murphy, R McElvany, MS, M Crutcher, MD, State Epidemiologist, Oklahoma State Dept of Health. Div of Unintentional Injury Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The findings in this report underscore both the importance and difficulty of identifying electricity-related drownings. No state or national surveillance systems exist for electricity-related deaths on U.S. lakes and other bodies of water. Although data are collected about the number of drownings that occur nationally, these data are not subcategorized by secondary cause of death. To improve identification of causes of drownings, local surveillance systems should require a more detailed description of drowning incidents. In the cases described in this report, electricity-related drownings were identified through reports of the Oklahoma Lake Patrol, the narrative portion of ME records, ambulance reports, hospital records, and newspaper clippings. Electricity-related near-drowning episodes are rarely reported because of the lack of a detailed description of the incident, poor documentation on medical records, or because the patients do not seek medical attention (3).

Electricity-related drownings are difficult to identify because physical evidence of electricity-induced burns may not be readily apparent. Burns result from localized heating of tissue; however, during an electricity-related drowning, water dissipates heat and prevents the skin from attaining temperatures required for burning.

Electricity-related drownings can be prevented by regular inspections for ground fault failure and strict enforcement of the National Electric Code through frequent inspection of pools and docks. Employers should implement appropriate control measures to prevent contact with energized electrical conductors, especially in wet environments. When drownings occur at pools or near docks and the cause cannot be readily identified, the electrical system of the pool or dock should be inspected. Improved surveillance for drownings could be enhanced by including narrative information on death certificates for which injuries are listed as the primary cause of death.


  1. CDC. Drownings at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation facilities, 1986-1990. MMWR 1992;41:331-3.

  2. Oklahoma State Department of Health, Injury Prevention Service. Summary of reportable injuries in Oklahoma, 1988-1994. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Oklahoma State Dept of Health, 1996.

  3. Rainey DY, Runyan CW. Newspapers: a source for injury surveillance. Am J Public Health 1992;82:745-6.

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