Overhead lines, underground utilities—even faulty hand tools—put your life at risk on the job.
By Jennifer Strawn
Roger Renner, MGWC, is lucky to be alive.
The mast of Renner’s rig came in contact with an overhead power line early in his career. It blew a hole in the top of the mast and sent more than 59,000 volts of power through the rig while he was still standing on it.
“I should be dead!” says Renner, president of E.H. Renner and Sons in Elk River, Minnesota. “I keep asking myself why I’m alive—even today.”
You might think it will never happen to you, but getting a serious shock while working with electricity is easier than you realize.
“My rig was about 30 feet away from the line on an incline,” Renner says. “The lines swayed into my mast. I didn’t hit the lines, they hit me. It happened so fast.”
Raising a mast into a power line is an easily recognizable threat, but other electrical hazards are less obvious. Here’s how to protect yourself while you’re on the job.
Overhead power lines
Overhead power lines are the easiest hazard to spot—but can also be the deadliest.
“Putting our booms or derricks up into overhead power lines is the No. 1 way to get killed!” says Denis Crayon, CHST, of Summit Drilling Co. in Bridgewater, New Jersey. “There are laws (about working around overhead power lines) because other people have already died from it.”
In addition to always looking up before raising your mast, you must maintain at least a 10-foot distance from any overhead power line that is 50 kilovolts (kV) or less, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s standard 1926.1408. Above that, the minimum distance goes up 5 feet for every 150 kV. So for example, the minimum distance from a power line that is 50 kV to 200 kV is 15 feet.
If you come in contact with an overhead power line, don’t step off of the rig! Your helper or assistant should call 911, and you should stay on the equipment until the first responders tell you it’s safe to step down.
Like a bird on a wire, you can safely stay on the rig as long as you don’t come in contact with the ground while you’re still touching the rig. A bird can sit on electrical wires without harm because they’re not touching the ground. But if the bird grabs a caterpillar on a leaf, he dies because he’s completed the circuit from the power line, through the caterpillar, through the tree, and to the ground.
“If you stay on that rig, you can stay on it for a week,” Crayon says. “You can have someone deliver you McDonald’s as long as you don’t touch each other at the same time.”
The same rules apply if your rig is struck by lightning. Stay on the rig without touching the ground until help arrives. “If the equipment catches fire—which has been known to happen—you will have to jump free of the equipment,” Crayon says. “You’ll want to jump away from the equipment, releasing any contact with the equipment, and then land independent of, and not touching, the equipment.”
Do your best to land on both feet, and shuffle away from the equipment without letting your feet come off the ground. The same rule applies to both lightning strikes and striking overhead lines.
“I would keep shuffling until I see the emergency people running past me,” Crayon says. “You can easily get yourself killed by lifting a foot because the electricity that has gone from the rig into the ground is radiating out.”
“There are laws (about working around overhead power lines) because other people have already died from it .”
If a grounding cable is required for the job, always bolt the cable to the front of your rig—the opposite of the end of the rig you’re working on—then run the grounding rod out 50 to 100 feet and sink the copper rod into the ground about 6 feet to 8 feet, depending on the length of the rod and type of soil.
If the rig is energized by an overhead line or lightning, most of the energy goes through the front of the rig and grounding rod. The farther it is away from your work area, the better off you are.
What you can’t see can also kill you. Striking underground power lines and other utilities pose another electrical hazard on the job site.
“This happened to a guy I know,” Crayon says. “He contacted a wire and damaged it. There was an explosion that threw him and his partner about 15 feet in the air with a flash of heated-up copper, which ended up melting to the surface of the rig. He survived, but he didn’t drill another hole for a while.”
Protect yourself by calling 811 before starting any project so underground utilities can be marked ahead of time. You can find direct phone numbers and statespecific information, including how far in advance you should have the utilities marked and how long the marks are good for. Go to www.call811.com.
Even then, you should take care when digging because an underground line may be mismarked. It could also be deeper or more shallow than you expect it to be.
One-call services locate public utilities only, but you can hire a company to locate private utilities before you start work.
“When we come into contact with an underground wire, we become the perfect fuse,” Renner says. “We’re in the ground and have moist soil, so it goes right through you and stops your heart.”
Working with electricity
Sometimes, the most dangerous electrical hazard is the one you know is there. You know there will be power when installing or servicing pumps and while working with power tools.
Yet, it’s what comes to mind when Renner thinks about contractors electrocuting themselves on the job. Too few contractors use lockout tagout kits or voltmeters, he says.
“Voltmeters are the most integral safety device we have in the industry. In their lifetime, (contractors) have a 50/50 chance of being electrocuted if they work with power and don’t have meters,” Renner adds. “I know too many guys who say they use a screwdriver. They know there’s power when it flashes in front of them. They have developed their own way of diagnosing pumps without meters that’s really unsafe.”
In addition to voltmeters, your employer should provide a lockout tagout kit and train you on how to use it. Always use the lockout tagout device even when you think you’re alone.
For example, a man who is your customer may know you’re at his house and leave you alone. But when his wife comes home and tries to do a load of laundry, she’ll see the circuit breaker is off, and flip it back on—not knowing that you’re working!
“Stranger things have happened,” Crayon says. “It’s a very simple scenario that can easily be replicated day in and day out around the country. And you’re the guy holding the pump.”
Ground fault circuit interrupters, or GFCIs, are required to be installed at the power source when using fixed electricity or when using a tool that uses water, like a cut saw, or while using a tool in a wet environment. Your employer should provide it, and they’re designed to recognize a link to ground and shut off the power between 1/35th and 1/40th of a second (that fast!).
You should also inspect the electrical cords on your power tools and extension cords before using them each day. Extension cords, known as flexible cords by OSHA, can’t be rebuilt or taped. They can’t have any breaks in them or have missing grounding plugs. They also must be appropriately sized for the equipment being used.
And when cleaning up for the day, don’t wind the electrical cords up around your arm. Doing that could damage the inside of the insulation.
“You can’t see it, so would never know it,” Crayon says. “But you could get hurt or even killed by it.”
Electrical accidents happen before you even have a chance to react, so preventing them and knowing what to do if one happens can save your life. Renner knows this firsthand. Every time he drives past the site of his accident, he recalls it as the place where he almost died.
“When the sheriff’s department received the call, they didn’t send an ambulance; they sent the coroner to pick up the body,” is how Renner tells it. “Fortunately there wasn’t one, but I’m never going to forget that day.”
Jennifer Strawn was the associate editor of Water Well Journal from 2004 to 2007. She is currently in the internal communications department at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at email@example.com.