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Electrocution Injuries: How Serious are they, Really?

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Electrocution Injuries: How Serious are they, Really?

Aug 21, 2015

Did you know sticking a fork in an outlet in your home could actually kill you? What could happen if your shovel struck an underground power line while you were digging in your backyard? In this podcast, three linemen from Rocky Mountain Power and burn expert Dr. Stephen Morris explain how electrical injuries happen and offer some safety tips for preventing grievous injuries and deaths in your own backyard.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Electrocution injuries from the perspective of a power lineman and a burn center doctor. That's next on The Scope.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope. The University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

Interviewer: Dr. Stephen Morris is with the University of Utah Burn Center and we have three Rocky Mountain Power linemen with us today. Justin Holleran, Rick Wroby, and Mark Maomao. First off, before we get to the safety message, I think it's really important that people know what incredible work guys like you do. Being a lineman, I did a little research, is in the top ten most dangerous jobs and the fatality rate is twice that of police officers and firefighters.

I think it's kind of an unsung hero type job because when the power goes off we just wait for it to come back on, and usually are grouchy about it. But it's men and women like the ones you're going to hear from today that make it happen, and often times in the worst conditions like storms and darkness, long hours. They are really, truly the unsung heroes. Hopefully we are going to use some of your experience and expertise to save some lives today or at least save some pain. First of all, I want to talk to Justin Holleran. He's one of the linemen. Tell me what happens when someone comes into contact with electricity.

Justin: When someone gets in contact with electricity, especially high voltage, hopefully they're still alive at such a high voltage, but a lot of burn and could be amputation.

Interviewer: How so? How does that happen?

Justin: At such a high voltage if there's a lot of amperage going through it, if your arm is bent or leg is bent, a lot of times it won't even make the bend, it will just disconnect.

Interviewer: So have you seen instances where a high voltage power line is down and somebody comes into contact with it?

Justin: A lot of times when we get on scene, they have been taken off, medical personnel has taken them of and we're just there to repair. A lot of them are backyard accidents, people tree trimming on the weekend, new construction. A lot of times they're building structures too close to the power line and they've been there a week or two and they've forgot about it, and they lift either lattice of some sort, or just a piece of metal up in the air to come in contact. We get a lot of those calls.

Interviewer: Let's get Rick up here. Rick, when you go through your training, what are some of the things you're told to watch out for when it comes to high voltage electricity?

Rick: Well it's definitely important when you're dealing with electricity to insulate or isolate, and by that, a few of the terms that we use in our trade is whether you use insulation to protect yourself, or you isolate the danger. You isolate the hazard. Now if we do work at hot, which we often do, we use PPEs and protective equipment to keep us insulated.

Interviewer: But the average person doesn't have this type of equipment. So if I've got a ladder up against my house next to that thing where the power comes into my house, what should I be doing then?

Rick: You should make sure to stay away ten feet from the power line at all times.

Interviewer: But it has that insulation on it so it should be fine, right?

Rick: Well not always. It doesn't always have the insulation on it.

Interviewer: Got you. Well especially at a point of entry like that.

Rick: Some of the older applications are not even insulated at all, and so the ones that Justin was talking about where the home tree trimmer gets into the power line, is there's an old power line built in the '60s running through the backyard, then those lines will most likely not be insulated at all.

Interviewer: Dr. Morris, what do you see from your perspective when someone comes in who has been electrocuted?

Dr. Morris: It depends upon the voltage. It depends upon the type of contact. Sometimes patients will come in who literally have not had any conduction of electricity through them, but because of a short there can be a real flash of a material around the electricity, and so they can have face burns, hand burns. We see that a lot with electricians.

Sometimes it's a low enough voltage, for example, a child who is fascinated by electrical outlets, or who puts a cord in their mouth. They can have a very small localized wound. But the worst are probably the high voltage electrical, where they have contact. They will literally have kilowatts going through their bodies. It takes a lot of energy to get through the skin which is high resistance, so lots of heat right there at the skin. Where there's resistance in the body, along bone, for example, you can have a lot of heating there, and so it is what we call an "iceberg" type of thing, you see only the tip.

Those patients can have total destruction of muscle, and nerve and blood vessels, and those are the patients that we were talking about a few minutes ago who could end up having amputations because there is no living tissue anymore.

Interviewer: Because the way electricity works is it generates heat when it meets resistance, and that's how people end up getting burned, is that correct?

Dr. Morris: That is correct. And so it is a thermal injury, a heat-injury or sorts, but a very specialized kind that really can unpredictably course through the body and usually you don't have direct injury to vital organs, brain, heart, and things like that. But because of the massive extent, every body system is involved.

Interviewer: So it sounds like the burn part isn't the worst part in electrocution injuries. It sounds like you can destroy muscle tissue, you can destroy bone.

Dr. Morris: Well that is burn, but it is deep and it is hidden.

Interviewer: Oh I see, so we're used to the superficial skin burn, but this is burn.

Dr. Morris: Correct.

Interviewer: You're cooking somebody, in a way.

Dr. Morris: That's right. From the inside out.

Interviewer: Wow. Mark Maomao is one of the linemen. What safety tips to you have?

Mark: I would say probably the biggest safety tip as a lineman and for the most part, even in our trade, what I see is people aren't using common sense out there. If you're in a dangerous situation call the Rocky Mountain Power Company, ask those questions to professionals that deal with it day in and day out. I also want to add that yes we do see a lot of injuries, we talked a lot about high voltage a bit, but it only takes point five milliamps to kill you. Point five.

Interviewer: Give me a perspective of where I would find point five milliamps. Like sticking a fork in an outlet? That would give me point five milliamps. That could kill me.

Mark: That could kill you. Correct. If the electricity, as the doctor alluded to earlier, it's unpredictable.

Interviewer: We've talked a lot about high voltage, and I think now we're starting to even understand that even the outlet in your house could be dangerous. Do you see burns from inside the house electricity? Like, I'm installing a new light fixture, I went down to the Home Depot and I got a new light fixture. I didn't turn off the right breaker, bam, could that burn me?

Mark: Yes of course. I think we need to get better as a society, educating folks on how to be careful, even in your home.

Interviewer: Rick, what did you want to say?

Rick: I've got one point to add to that. Education. Educate your neighbors, educate your family, and especially educate your kids, because your home is your safe place, but often times that's where the accidents happen.

Interviewer: Justin?

Justin: I just wanted to add that not all power lines are in the air. Anything new, they're underground. So anybody on the weekend, even putting a fence in your backyard, we see that almost daily now. People hitting their power line serving their house and there is a lot of other ones, high voltage, running across the back of the property line. A lot of people rent an excavator for the weekend or just out there with a shovel and a digging bar.

Interviewer: So I think that those are a good couple takeaway messages. Dr. Morris, do you have a takeaway message?

Dr. Morris: The most common reason people get injured by electricity is they're not aware that there is an electrical hazard. So whenever you do anything, you said it best, look up, because there's a lot of overhead.

Interviewer: And remember to look down, check down.

Dr. Morris: And be sure to be safe before you start digging, it's not just the inconvenience of not having cable or internet. You could kill yourself with electrical gas, with electricity. That's one, just being aware of what's around you when you're doing something you don't do every day.

Interviewer: And there other takeaway is from our lineman.

Mark: Could I just say something about our partnership with University of Utah Burn Center? We really appreciate the opportunity that we've had as lineman to work together with Rocky Mountain Power local 57. We are a big fan of what you folks do here. You said earlier it takes a special person to be a lineman. I think it takes an even more special individual to do the kinds of things you do here for people. I just wanted to say on behalf of everybody that I work with it is a big deal for us and we wanted to personally say thank you.

Dr. Morris: Well and likewise I wanted to say that in the midst of tragedy we've seen such great, noble people from you as linemen literally picking up the pieces and going on and making a difference in the world. A lot of it is education and a lot of it is community help and community service. We really appreciate that and the financial support that you give us so we can do things like this, so we can educate people that, take care. Be careful.

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