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My Shocking Awakening: Lessons Learned From a High-Voltage Contact

Why is this happening? It hurts! Don’t let go!

These are some of the thoughts that ran through my mind on a day in late 2015 when an induction contact surged through and around my body for roughly 30 seconds. What was supposed to be a typical workday quickly turned into a fight for my life as I was held captive 130 feet in the air by an insulated optical ground wire (OPGW) charged with inducted voltage off two energized 500,000-volt circuits. Why did it happen? Did I miss the warning signs? Could the incident have been avoided?

The Event
Before we get to those questions, let me describe what happened the day of the event. I started work at 4 a.m. when I arrived at the yard early to inspect new fall protection gear before I issued it to the crew. The project that day was to replace insulators and hardware on two suspension towers on an energized 500-kV circuit using barehand work procedures. The job site was two-and-a-half hours away, and I was to drive the flatbed truck carrying the insulators to the landing zone.

When I arrived at the job site, the crew had all of the tools and equipment we would need to complete the work set up and ready, and the helicopter was on-site and shut down. Our supervisor soon arrived with the non-test order and quickly informed us that a lightning storm had rolled through the area hours before, flashing three insulators on another tower, and that we would be replacing those as well. The work we had planned would have already made for a long day, so the additional tower would extend our workday into the night.

After our pre-job brief with the helicopter pilot and all crew members, we suited up and prepared for our flight to the structure. We flew in groups of two, and as the pilot brought us to the tower, we noticed a vertical run of OPGW running down the northeast leg of the tower, right where the pilot was planning to land us. I gave the wave-off signal to the pilot and pointed to the tower’s bridge, where we had a clear spot to land. After the pilot set us on the bridge, the four of us held a two-minute pause during which we assessed the hazard. I’d worked with OPGW countless times but never in a vertical configuration. On this tower, the OPGW was attached at the top by an insulated dead-end. It then ran down the northeast leg of the tower and entered a splice canister attached to the tower approximately 50 feet above the ground. The OPGW then exited the canister and ran up the southeast leg to the top of the tower, continuing down the line. The conductor was attached to the tower on insulators, and that was the root of the hazard. We knew there would be a difference of potential between the insulated OPGW and the structure. The OPGW was not bonded to the structure at any point. We also knew we needed to ground the OPGW as it ran through our work zone. But where should we ground it? How should we ground it? One ground or two? As we looked down at the canister, we all agreed that one ground placed on the north vertical run would be enough. We could see that the shield wire was intact as it went under the canister. We called our foreman on the radio and requested a ground shunt. Asking for a ground shunt while we were doing energized work raised concern on his part. He quickly replied, “Why would we need a ground?” After explaining the situation, our foreman agreed with our mitigation plan and sent us a ground shunt.

After we received the shunt, I installed it on the north vertical run of the OPGW. My crewmates and I then took another two-minute pause to reassess the hazard. We agreed that we sufficiently mitigated it, so we continued with our work. I still had a feeling of doubt, though. I wondered, is it safe? Can I safely pass the vertical run to get to my work location? I ignored my doubts as I thought about my crewmates and our agreement that the mitigation was sufficient.

With that, I unbelted from the tower and proceeded to climb on the south face toward the east arm. As I started past the vertical conductor, my left wrist rested against it. The second I grabbed the steel tower with my right hand, my body locked up, and I heard the surge of electricity pulse through me. I felt the voltage as it passed across my chest and down my legs. I became the path to ground that shunted thousands of induced volts from the OPGW to the grounded tower. I remember thinking, “Why is this happening? It hurts! Don’t let go! And how do I get away?” The cycle of voltage rise and drop occurred five to six times. I was able to break away by swinging into the tower body and landing on an X-brace below.

As I was lying there on my back, I could hear my crewmates yell for me while they initiated our emergency action plan. My arms and legs were cramped and sore. The crew called the helicopter back and hoisted a crewmate next to me to pull me out of the tower. Once I was at the landing zone, I was driven to the hospital and kept overnight for observation. Amazingly, I walked away with only exit marks on my heel and nerve pain in my back. The doctors were amazed at my condition, considering the voltage I had sustained.

My Awakening
So many questions came to mind when I was lying in that hospital bed, including the three I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Why did this happen? Did I miss the warning signs? Could this have been avoided? A high-voltage contact that should have killed me has allowed me to learn from the experience. Unfortunately, this type of scenario has occurred over and over in our trade, often resulting in tragedy. I’ve thought about the events that led up to the contact countless times over the past five years. I’ve also learned a lot about myself, my work habits, and the things I needed to change to ensure my crew and I return home safely at the end of each day. Rushing, complacency and trusting assumptions played a big part in my incident, so let’s take a closer look at those three at-risk behaviors.

1. Rushing. It is in our nature as humans to try to complete a task as quickly as possible. We need to remember that no matter the reason for rushing, it can injure us or others. Problems can arise, such as missing steps in a procedure, forgetting or neglecting to wear personal protective equipment, or not following rules because they take additional time. We had a lot of work to get done the day I was injured, which put added pressure on us to move faster. In turn, that led to us either not recognizing warning signs or dismissing them altogether.

It is essential to recognize when you or your teammates are hurrying through a task. Doing so, and then slowing down, gives all of us time to think about the task, plan our work and address potential hazards.

2. Complacency. Complacency is present in just about every industry imaginable. Workers who routinely perform a task can eventually find themselves running on autopilot or trusting the assumption that everything will go as smoothly as it has in the past. My incident occurred in late 2015, the year our trade saw a considerable change in regulations around fall protection. One-hundred percent fall protection while working at heights was new to all of us. Before this change, it was not uncommon to see lineworkers free-climbing across towers. It was something I did and felt very comfortable doing. Free-climbing had become a habit for me. As the crew safety lead and fall protection competent person, though, I also knew the new fall protection rule very well. I even inspected our new fall protection gear the morning of the incident before issuing it to the crew. But when it came time for me to traverse the tower, I did what I had done many times before without incident. I unbelted and free-climbed my way across the tower. In doing so, I left myself open to a fall hazard while being electrocuted. If I had been 100% protected from a fall while climbing, I could have just let go and fallen into my harness. Being unprotected from a fall added another hazard to my situation.

3. Trusting assumptions. The morning of the incident, a thought came to mind as I prepped insulators for flight: I wondered if a crewmate had completed a flight review of the structures. I reminded myself that we always conduct a flight review, so they must have completed it before I arrived. Had I challenged my assumption by asking my question, I would have learned that no one flew to the structures to assess hazards. In my experience, someone had always flown to job sites before the pre-job brief, mostly when they were inaccessible by foot or vehicle. We were unaware of the unfamiliar OPGW hazard at our job site because we missed this step in our hazard assessment. Knowing that the threat existed before the pre-job brief would have allowed us to talk about it and investigate the proper procedure for grounding it.

Set Up for Success
Many warning signs leading up to the incident that day were either not recognized or ignored altogether – warning signs that, if they had been acknowledged, could have been addressed and stopped the event from happening.

A detailed hazard assessment and pre-job brief are essential to a successful workday. The following tips can help crews stay focused on their work and provide ways for crew members to come together as a team to accomplish a task and return home safely:

  • Have all crew members walk the job site together, look for hazards and discuss mitigations.
  • Give all employees, no matter their rank, the opportunity to prepare and lead a pre-job brief.
  • Have an emergency action plan for your work location and discuss it every time you’re at the site.
  • Encourage open dialogue by asking questions.
  • Regularly remind everyone that there are no stupid questions, which helps to foster an atmosphere where everyone feels safe speaking up.
  • End every pre-job brief with these two questions: Are there any questions? Did I miss anything?
  • Stop when unsure. If there is any question or doubt, stop and talk it out.

There are a couple of other things that would have prevented this contact. It’s obvious that one ground didn’t do the job. Looking at the photo of the splice canister, you can see that the OPGW did not go into the can. We should have grounded the OPGW to the tower at both ends and bonded across the two conductors at the OPGW splice. After we grounded the OPGW, we thought we were at equipotential; what we didn’t do was demonstrate we were bonded in using a voltmeter. We had grounded the OPGW on the north face, not realizing the run on the south face was isolated below the splice can. If we had tested, we would have identified the exposure and added grounds to bond in our work environment.

This incident has given me the opportunity to improve my personal safety. I challenge you to look at yourself, too. Are you fostering any at-risk behaviors? Routinely ask, do I follow all work procedures and safety rules? Do I use proper PPE all the time? Regularly assessing your personal safety can help you have a safe and productive workday – and avoid what happened to me in 2015.

About the Author: Lito Wilkins, CUSP, is a journeyman lineman and the senior safety manager at International Line Builders Inc.’s Northern California Division.

Safety Management