Lack of communication and disregard for proper work procedures resulted in the electrocution of a licensed journeyman electrician employed by a Kentucky electrical contracting company a few years ago. Much can be learned from the mistakes made in this case.

On the morning of July 4, 2003, a contract crew of five licensed electricians was running wires to connect service for two air-conditioning units and service for a lighting panel at the new addition of an automotive supply manufacturing facility. The manufacturing facility had been shut down for the holiday and — with the exception of one employee in the plant's main office — the five men were the only workers onsite, making them the only ones with the ability to turn the building's utilities on and off.

The victim, a 36-year-old lead electrician, and one of his coworkers were sitting in a 4-foot by 4-foot junction box pulling wires into it, which was supported by two railings 20 feet off the ground. The job foreman and another electrician were on the ground. A fifth electrician was on a scissor lift next to the junction box, assisting the two workers. Each set of wiring the victim was pulling had its own breaker on a breaker panel that the foreman — but not the lead electrician — had locked out, modifying the normally followed lockout/tagout procedure.

At the time of the incident, the electrical job was 50% complete, and the crew had approximately 10 more minutes of work to finish up. The outside temperature was a hot and humid 85°F with a dew point of 71°F. Although the temperature inside where the men were working isn't known, his coworkers said the lead electrician was perspiring and had removed his shirt.

After completing connections for the lighting service, the lead electrician began pulling the wires for the air-conditioning service. As he pulled the wires into the junction box, he routed them under his legs, tapping the ends of the wires into his right hand to ensure they were even (he was not wearing insulated gloves as he handled the wires and made the connections).

Concurrently, the victim was ready for the breaker to the lighting service panel to be turned on and instructed the foreman to throw the breaker to the “on” position. The foreman, thinking he should restore power to all three breakers, walked to the breaker panel, removed his lockout/tagout on all three breakers, and flipped them on.

According to his coworkers, the lead electrician looked at the other man in the junction box, said “help me,” and then collapsed. The foreman immediately contacted emergency services while the employees in the junction box and scissor lift performed CPR on the victim until paramedics arrived. Paramedics transported the electrician to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. Cause of death was electrocution. To prevent similar tragedies from occurring, NIOSH recommends the following:

Employees should always follow company lockout/tagout procedures. The OSHA regulation 1926.416(a)(1) states, “No employer shall permit an employee to work in such proximity to any part of an electric power circuit that the employee could contact the electric power circuit in the course of work, unless the employee is protected against electric shock by de-energizing the circuit and grounding it or by guarding it effectively by insulation or other means.” The job foreman had used his lockout/tagout equipment, but the victim and his coworker in the junction box had not. This was done to save time. If proper safety procedures had been followed, the two electricians in the junction box would have had to lower themselves to the ground, walk to the breakers with the foreman, remove their lockout/tagouts, and energize the correct breaker.

Communication between workers should be clear and precise. Although the men involved in this incident had worked together for several years and knew each other, they still miscommunicated. Only the person performing the work should throw the breaker when the work is completed — in this case, the victim.

Reprinted with permission from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Division of Safety Research (DSR). All electrical-related FACE reports can be viewed in their entirety at www.cdc.gov/niosh/face/default.html.