Downed Powerline Safety: Essential PPE and Safety Standards
Downed powerlines are extremely dangerous. Physical contact with a downed line from a damaged utility pole can lead to life-threatening injury, disfigurement, and death. As such, any personnel tasked with powerline repair and cleanup must follow specific precautions and always wear appropriate electrical protective equipment—not only to protect themselves, but to protect the people around them.
This article discusses common causes and consequences of downed powerlines, eight key safety rules that should be followed when working around or fixing a downed powerline, and the type of personal protective equipment (PPE) that should be worn at all times by anyone who is repairing or cleaning up these hazards.
What Can Cause a Downed Powerline?
Downed powerlines have multiple causes, from inclement weather to road accidents. Some specific examples of situations that may lead to downed or damaged powerlines include:
- Lightning strikes
- High winds
- Falling tree limbs and other debris
- Heavy snow and ice
- Terrorist attacks, bombings, and other crisis situations
- Motor vehicle accidents, such as when a car, truck, bus, or even plane or boat crashes into a utility pole
Health Risks Associated with Downed Powerlines
In 2019, 166 workers lost their lives to fatal electrical injuries, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That same year, the BLS reported 1,900 nonfatal electrical injuries that required days away from work. Most likely, at least some of these injuries and deaths involved accidental contact with powerlines—whether the lines were damaged or not.
The key danger of a downed powerline is that it could still be energized with electricity. If a person touches a downed powerline or is standing too close to where the line comes in contact with the ground, the electricity in the line or ground can pass into the person's body, causing an electric shock (electrocution).
Depending on the severity of the shock, a person who gets electrocuted by a downed powerline may suffer specific injuries such as:
- Thermal burns on the skin, including the eyes, face, hands and fingers, trunk, and limbs
- Muscle spasms
- Nervous system dysfunction
- Brain injury (electric shock acquired brain injuries or ABIs)
- Cardiac arrest
- Organ damage and organ failure
How Far Away Should You Stay from a Downed Powerline?
Best practice teaches us that you should stay at least 30 feet away from a downed powerline, at a minimum.
8 Safety Rules That Should be Followed When Working Near Downed Powerlines
- Always wear appropriate PPE and IPE (see the next section for more information).
- Always assume that downed powerlines are LIVE and contain electricity. Just because a powerline is on the ground, not sparking, or not making noise (e.g., buzzing or humming) does NOT mean that it is safe to touch. Treat every downed line as if it contains electricity until you or another professional can confirm that the line has been de-energized and tested.
- Never drive over a downed powerline, nor step in water near a downed line.
- Do not assume that an electrical line is not dangerous simply because of the type of line it is (e.g., fiber-optic cable, television cable, telephone cable). Any and all electrical lines can carry a lethal current.
- If you are in a car and believe your vehicle has come in contact with a downed powerline, DO NOT get out of the car unless staying in the car would put your life in danger. Otherwise, stay in the car and call for help—tell your rescuers there is a downed powerline and that they need to stay away from the vehicle.
- If you have to get out of a vehicle that's in contact with a powerline because of a life-threatening emergency (for instance, the car is on fire or you see smoke), try this: jump OUT and AWAY. Land with your feet together and DO NOT touch the ground and the car at the same time. Shuffle away with your feet still touching until you reach a safe distance (at least 30 feet away!).
- DO NOT touch someone if they are in direct or indirect contact with a downed powerline. Touching this person could cause you to become electrocuted, too. Call 911 immediately.
- Remember that electricity can spread through the ground in a circular shape, moving away from where a downed line makes contact with the ground. As you move away from a line to a safe distance, shuffle your feet and take small steps to help prevent electric shock.
Protecting Your Workforce with the Right PPE for High Voltage
The specific type of PPE for high voltage situations that personnel will need depends on several factors, including the type of job task performed. Some common examples of electrical PPE clothing include:
- Safety goggles and/or face shields
- Hard hats
- Rubber insulated boots
- Rubber gloves with leather protectors
- Insulating sleeves
- Flame-resistant clothing
All of these items of PPE are essential for reducing the risk of electrocution and subsequent worker injury. They should be worn by personnel who are working around or fixing powerlines whether the powerline is downed or not.
Worn properly, PPE may be able to prevent a worker from accidentally becoming energized and thereby posing a hazard to other people around them.
As always, every member of the workforce who will be expected to use electrical protective equipment must be thoroughly trained on how to:
- Properly don and doff PPE
- Store, transport, and care for PPE
- Recognize the signs of worn or damaged PPE (workers should also be encouraged to report any damaged PPE to their immediate supervisors)
What is Insulating Protective Equipment (IPE)?
Unlike electrical personal protective equipment, insulating protective equipment (IPE) is not worn on the body. Instead, IPE surrounds personnel working in aerial buckets and other occupational environments, in order to protect them from coming in contact with energized conductors.
Examples of IPE include:
- Rubber insulated line hoses, blankets, and hoods (or plastic or fiberglass line hoods and covers that can be installed with live-line tools)
- Insulating barriers made of material such as phenolic resin or fiberglass
- Live-line tools, including hotsticks, shotgun sticks, and switchsticks
Just like electrical PPE clothing, IPE is similar to electrical PPE clothing, however, in that it should meet safety standards and specifications, as established by OSHA.
Electrical Workers Have Rights
Employers of personnel involved in the cleanup and repair of downed powerlines, as well as recovery efforts following weather emergencies and other crisis situations, should recognize that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) stipulates several rights for workers in these roles. These rights include the following:
- The right to working conditions that do not pose a serious risk of harm. (Ensuring personnel is provided easy access to electrical personal protective equipment is essential in this regard.)
- The right to receive proper information, education, and training about workplace hazards, hazard mitigation strategies, and OSHA standards relevant to their work environment, including the National Fire Protection Association Standards NFPA 70, National Electric Code, and NFPA 70E®: Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®.
- The right to review records of work-related injury and illness.
- The right to file complaints with OSHA and request a workplace inspection if the employer is suspected of not following OSHA rules and regulations. Workers also have the right to raise these concerns to their employer and/or OSHA without the risk of retaliation by their employer.
Did you know?
May is National Electrical Safety Month (NESM). Each year, the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) advocates for electrical safety in the home, school, and workplace by launching comprehensive awareness campaigns.
Learn more about this year's theme, Energy Resilience, by visiting ESFI's website.
Death, disfigurement, and disabling injuries are serious yet preventable hazards associated with downed powerlines. If your workforce is involved in cleanup, repair, or recovery efforts for weather emergencies and other disasters that involve downed powerlines, ensure they have the correct PPE to keep them safe.
To learn about our products, contact International Enviroguard today by calling 1-800-345-5972.