Look Up! Be Safe Around Electricity
April 25th, 2019 by Pam Blair

An Illinois asphalt truck operator raised the bed so he could clean the tailgate area, contacting the overhead power lines. Miraculously, the operator was shocked three times and survived. The truck, above and opposite page, was destroyed.
Photos courtesy of Steve Hancock, Corn Belt Energy Corp.

Never take for granted the location of power lines—and always stay clear of people or objects who are in contact with electricity

When electricity comes into contact with a person or something he or she is touching, the results can be deadly.

On March 10, 2019, baseball coach Corey Crum and his wife, Shana, were killed and their 14-year-old son, Chase, was injured when they were electrocuted while installing concrete pilings for a new scoreboard at a Florida high school.

Like many places in the Florida Panhandle, the Liberty County High School baseball field in Bristol was heavily damaged when Hurricane Michael—a Category 4 storm—struck in October.

Along with members of the baseball team, parents and community volunteers, the Crums had gathered for a work day. Corey, who was in the construction business, donated the pilings and the labor to install them, in anticipation of the new scoreboard being placed later that week.

“Coach Crum was operating a boom lift and unloading a piece of equipment from a trailer when the boom of the lift made contact with overhead power lines,” the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office posted on its Facebook site. “This electrified the boom lift, electrocuting Coach Crum. The coach’s wife then attempted to aid him, and was also electrocuted. Their son also attempted to help the two, and he was electrocuted and injured.”

The couple died at the scene. Chase was hospitalized and later released.

Your Own Safety Must Come First
When seeing a loved one in distress, the instinct is to rush in to help. But when the distress is a result of contact with electricity, that is the wrong move.

Touching a person who is still in contact with an electrical source may pass the current through you—and you cannot help if you become another victim.

First responders to an accident involving downed power lines on the ground, draped across a car or touching a piece of equipment also face the possibility of a deadly electric shock.

Electricity can be an invisible killer.

You do not have to touch a live wire to suffer serious electrical injury or death.In fact, you can be electrocuted by just walking within 35 feet of a downed power line because of “step potential.”

That term refers to the difference in voltage in energized ground. Electricity spreads through the ground in invisible rippling rings, like a stone dropped in water. The voltage is highest in the ring closest to the power source. It dissipates to progressively lower voltages the further out it goes.

If someone steps from one voltage ring to another, electricity can surge through them—up one leg, through their body and down through their other leg.

A person whose body connects two different voltage points completes the circuit and becomes the path for the current.

A human hand touching someone who is in contact with a live wire and the ground completes the circuit. The same is true of a television antenna, a metal ladder, an irrigation pipe, a damp wooden pole or a tall piece of machinery.

Failure to notice high-voltage power lines can be a deadly oversight.

An asphalt truck operator in Illinois made what could have been three deadly mistakes when he came in contact with 7,200 volts of electricity a few years ago.

The operator did not notice the overhead power lines when he raised the truck bed and stepped to the back of the truck to clean the tailgate area. As electricity coursed through his body, he was blown away from the truck into a ditch. He got up to go back to the truck to retrieve something, and was shocked a second time. He made another attempt, and again was blown away from the truck.

“Believe it or not he survived,” says Steve Hancock, vice president of electric distribution for Corn Belt Energy Corp. and presenter of the live line electrical safety demonstration for the Bloomington, Indiana, cooperative.

If Possible, Stay In the Car
In accidents that bring down power lines, instinct tells us to flee danger. However, unless the vehicle is in imminent risk of catching on fire, it is best to stay in your vehicle, call 911 and wait for help.

“Knowing what actions to take to stay safe can make the difference between life and death,” says Molly Hall, executive director of the Energy Education Council and its Safe Electricity program. “After any car wreck, it is natural for people to want to get out of the car. However, when the wreck involves a power pole, that is the exact wrong thing to do.”

If you are involved or come upon an accident involving toppled power poles and lines, don’t leave your vehicle.

Although the inclination is to step in and help the injured, if the line is energized and you step out of the car, your body becomes the path for the electricity, and you can be electrocuted.

Similarly, you can be shocked while standing outside the vehicle and tending to an accident victim. That is because the voltage in the ground may be lower than the voltage in the vehicle.

Wait for trained assistance to arrive or you could become an additional victim.

While downed lines can sometimes show they are live with electricity by arcing and sparking, this is not always the case. Live power lines do not always show signs such as arcing or sparking. Treat all downed lines as energized.

If the vehicle is on fire—or you smell gas, and have reason to believe the car is going to ignite—jump from the vehicle, with both feet hitting the ground at the same time. Do not run or merely step out, and do not touch the vehicle and the ground at the same time. Hop or shuffle to safety, keeping both feet together as you leave the area so one foot won’t be in a higher voltage zone than another.

Stepping from one voltage level to another allows the body to become a path for the electricity. A large difference in voltage between both feet could kill you.

Knowing this can mean the difference between life and death.