This is the fourth post in our Safety survivors series, in which we hear the stories of people who’ve lived through serious, work related incidents. Their stories of bravery and pain are a sharp reminder of the consequences of a breakdown in safety.
In 1995, Richard Allen was a pipelayer’s helper, working for the City of Victoria. On the morning of October 16, he headed into work as usual; with no suspicion that by lunchtime his life would be changed forever.
At the time of the incident, Richard’s crew was installing a section of sanitary sewer on a city street. The excavation and installation had been done using city equipment, but a larger, rented crane was needed to remove heavy shoring materials.
As the crane operator attempted to loosen and lift some timber, it moved towards the overhead power lines, causing an electrical discharge. As the crane and the line didn’t actually touch, the charge must have jumped from one to the other. Richard received a huge electric shock, and was thrown back into the excavated hole, landing on a bed of gravel.
Richard suffered burns to his arm, hands and hip, and a concussion. Even as he steeled himself for what would be three months in the hospital and multiple skin grafts, doctors were telling him that he was lucky to be alive. “Very lucky,” said Richard. “I was wearing my Grandad’s signet ring, and I think the gold absorbed some of the electricity, saving my life.” In fact, Richard’s been told that his heart had probably stopped, but the fall onto the gravel jolted him back to life.
“I lost the finger on my right hand,” he explained, “because the heat just basically burnt it right off. The middle finger on that hand, and my thumb on the other hand were totally burnt, but the doctor saved them using skin grafts, and today they work just fine.”
What went wrong?
It seemed like a routine job, and no one expected any problems. Looking back, Richard believes these are some of the factors that contributed to his incident:
- The power wasn’t turned off because no one expected the crane to move in the direction of the lines.
- There was no one assigned to watch the movement of the crane boom and load line. Everyone assumed that someone else was doing it.
- Because the wooden shoring materials got tangled, it required an unexpected movement of the crane to loosen them.
- Richard was standing close to the wire rope load line while the crane was moving close to high voltage conductors.
- The crane operator received no formal orientation in city protocols.
Since the incident, the City of Victoria has changed many of their safety protocols, particularly around training and safety near power lines. “I was never really trained for any of that,” said Richard. “I was just a young guy and I’d do anything they’d tell me to do.”
Today, Richard finds it hard to believe that this was 20 years ago. He retrained as a civil engineering technologist and still works for the City, and he has two beautiful, healthy daughters. But he still wonders whether there might be, as yet, unknown damage, perhaps to his heart. He’s keen to share his story, hoping that his experience might show others how important it is to be vigilant and aware.
You can read more about how to integrate safety protocols into the behaviours and attitudes of employees, and the systems that govern their actions, in this post on operationalizing safety culture.
If you’d like to read more of our Safety survivors stories, check them out here: