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Electrocution a real risk for those in construction

| Jun 16, 2015 | Workers’ Compensation

Construction is one of the most important industries in Illinois. Hundreds of thousands of people across the state are employed in building, alteration, repair, renovation and other construction specialties. Construction workers are often exposed to dangerous sources of electrical energy. Unsafe conditions or improper training on construction sites can lead to instant death by electrical current. In many cases, electrocution is a major risk on the job, as any Chicago workers’ compensation attorney is aware.

What is electrocution and why is it such a hazard?

Electrocution is sudden death caused by exposure to electricity. It occurs when a worker comes into unplanned contact with live voltage. The worker’s body becomes part of the electrical circuit, exposing the person to a lethal dose of electric current. A surprisingly small amount of current can destroy the internal organs and stop the body’s processes instantly.

Many American workers are electrocuted each year. According to statistics compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an average of more than 400 employees are killed annually by electrocution on the job. These deaths account for a full 7 percent of all workplace fatalities.

Non-lethal injuries are also a serious threat

Other workers survive their electrical injuries but are temporarily or permanently disabled. Contact with electricity can cause a range of physical problems, including severe burns and heart arrhythmias. Serious electric shocks may lead to abrupt involuntary motions, causing people to fall from ladders or other high places and suffer broken bones or spinal trauma.

Electrical injury can change a person’s life in a matter of seconds. Injured workers may develop post-traumatic stress disorder after living through or witnessing a serious accident involving electricity. In some cases, workers do not recover or are forced to switch their profession. Every Chicago workers’ compensation attorney is familiar with tragic cases involving electrical shocks on the job.

When does electrocution happen?

Electrocution hazards can be as obvious as a downed high-tension power line or as simple as a broken light bulb. High voltage (defined by NIOSH as 600 volts or greater) poses a particularly high risk of electrocution. Most workplaces and work sites do not have voltage at this level, but even common 110/120 volt household current can kill a worker if the conditions are right. Construction employees who work on houses and businesses must be aware that they can suffer electrocution from household current.

High voltage hazards

Employees who work directly with distribution and transmission voltage must take special precautions to avoid electrocution. Proximity to power plants and power lines can lead to accidental death if safety procedures are not followed. Any voltage higher than approximately 600 volts will directly damage the skin and expose the organs to an increased flow of current. Everyone who takes part in construction projects in these environments must receive additional training in the safe handling of electricity. Workers without this training may not work with or near high voltage.

Many electrocution deaths are caused by involuntary reactions

Once the process of electrocution begins, the human body is often unable to save itself. Above a certain threshold of current, the muscles contract involuntarily and the victim cannot let go of the source of electricity. The following effects occur when a worker is exposed to increasing levels of current.

  • 1 mA (milliampere): Very mild tingling sensation
  • 5 mA: Painful shock
  • 15 mA: Paralysis of the arm muscles and inability to pull away from the source of electricity
  • 20 mA: Paralysis of the respiratory system
  • 100 mA: Ventricular fibrillation
  • 2000 mA: The heart stops and instant death occurs

Once the heart enters ventricular fibrillation, the worker will die unless a defibrillator is used immediately. Breakers and fuses will not open the circuit until these fatal levels of current have been exceeded by an additional factor of at least 10. A fuse will not save a person from electrocution, even when it functions properly.

Electrocution is more common in some conditions

Electrocution can occur in any circumstances, but it is especially risky when certain environmental conditions are present. These dangerous conditions include damp or wet clothing, rain, snow, fog, elevated humidity, sweat or broken skin. Any of these factors can raise the likelihood of fatal electrical injury, even at common household voltages. Many construction workers spend their days outside in all kinds of weather. This can be deadly when electricity is involved.

How can construction workers protect themselves against electrocution hazards?

People can protect themselves against electrocution hazards on construction sites by learning about the situations in which accidental death most often occurs. Every worker should become familiar with the concept of “let-go” current, the level of current at which the victim’s hand is paralyzed and is no longer able to let go of the source. “Let-go” current is an average of 15 mA, but it has been measured as low as 5 mA in some healthy subjects. Once workers have exceeded the “let-go” current, they can no longer do anything to avoid death or severe injury. Their colleagues may not be able to help them. In some cases, the would-be rescuer is also electrocuted.

Death by electrocution is a tragedy for construction workers and their families. When an employee dies on the job in Illinois, workers’ compensation benefits can provide for the employee’s spouse and dependents as they begin to rebuild their lives. People who are suffering from the aftermath of a workplace accident may find it useful to contact a Chicago workers’ compensation attorney to find out more about their choices.