I recently received quite a few passionate “Letters to the Editor” in reference to one of our safety articles. Based on this feedback, I felt compelled to share these thoughts with you. For years, “Forensic Casebook” has been one of our most popular departments. Detailing real-world cases, these articles are written by forensic engineers who examine every aspect of an electrical accident. This format is valuable because it shows readers what can and does go wrong in the field, giving them a chance to learn from others’ mistakes. Although I consistently find that readers commend our forensic articles for their practical safety lessons, I also get a fair share of those who take exception to certain points, as they did with our September 2011 article on page 10. “The Case of the Ladder and Line Collision,” also available online at: http://ecmweb.com/design_engineering/case-of-the-ladder-line-collision-20110901/ , left quite a few readers perplexed. Although it’s important to read details of the full article, here’s the case in a nutshell.

A painter was electrocuted at a rural church after the 32-foot aluminum ladder he was moving came in contact with a 7.2kV power line. The plaintiff (widow of the deceased painter) sued the local electric utility. Despite the painter’s awareness of the danger of the power line hazard, his decision to use an aluminum ladder, and the fact that he violated OSHA guidelines, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff, based in part on the testimony of the expert witness/author of the article, who maintained that the electric utility should have taken human nature into consideration during the design of the system, as well as the fact that certain types of accidents are foreseeable, if not probable. Many of you felt this testimony was flawed and that the verdict was unfair, saying what good are standards if expert witnesses deem that they’re ultimately not good enough, that designers can’t be expected to have crystal balls to overcompensate for common sense, and that although tragic, the victim’s death was solely the result of his own laziness. In the end, the jury awarded the plaintiff $4.85 million, finding the electric utility 85% liable for the accident. I have to admit that, as an ex-utility engineer, I too was somewhat shocked at the jury’s decision. Although I know there are instances where you should consider adding in additional safety factors when designing a system, I do not feel you should be expected to overcome every foreseeable obstacle. If designers followed this type of thinking, then nothing would ever get built. That being said, this type of debate is the very reason we run these types of articles — to spark industry discussion and promote a safer work environment. Following is a statement from Dr. Michael Morse, author of the article. A full professor of electrical engineering at the University of San Diego, he has reviewed hundreds of electrical injury cases.

“I have made a career out of studying electric shock cases and learning how we interact with the technology we create. The case presented provides some classic learning points. While we may be offended by someone (not in the industry) who has not yet upgraded to a (more costly) fiberglass ladder, gets killed in a power line contact incident, and then wins lots of money for his family, this case presents points of design and law that, if followed, will save lives. First, there is good reason that no law or code prohibits designing beyond the code. No matter how well thought out, codes represent minimums that must always be considered in the context of the environment in which they are applied. Second, the law recognizes that those with superior knowledge have a duty to those with lesser knowledge. In this case, had the designer spent just a few minutes with those two points — and then just a minute more considering that there was vast open space in all directions away from the building — it should have been obvious that design beyond the code would lessen the risk of very foreseeable contact with the power line. A few minutes would have saved a few million dollars in costs, but, more importantly, it would have allowed a man to go home that night. Everyone in this industry needs to learn to take those few minutes, turn off their autopilot, and perhaps save a life or two by making design choices that consider the code, the law, human nature, and the environment in which they all meet.”

Let the debate continue!