A survival guide for those in television who raise the mast

By Mark Bell

On Feb. 22, 1994, Lloyd Alfred "Al" Battle, on assignment for CNN in Alexandria, Va., was killed after he raised the mast of his ENG van into a 19,900 volt power line. Reports stated he was in a rush to get a signal back to the network because he had been kicked out of a parking lot where he planned to transmit. The time to set up the needed signal was running short.

Reports also indicated that producers and assignment desk people at the network's signal-receive location were anxious to get the shot, creating or elevating an existing tension level.

 

Alexandria, Va., 1994: The mast being raised by Al Battle touched a 19,900-volt power line, killing the veteran engineer. Photo by Michael Williamson (c) The Washington Post.

Because of the tragedy, the live shot never happened. In a site report, an emergency medical technician (EMT) stated that Battle "had no pulse, was not breathing, and his feet were off."

Al was not the first ENG technician injured or killed performing his or her duty. What was unusual was that Battle was an experienced industry veteran of 20 years of experience. What also was unusual was that his death was demonstrated in a way which had not been demonstrated previously -- it was videotaped.

The tape shows Al's van parked on the same side of the road where the power company had run its overhead high voltage power lines. As on so many streets in so many communities, the road had a crown, meaning that the center of the road was higher than the sides to facilitate water drainage. The crown tilted the truck enough so that the mast actually angled closer to the wires as it raised.

Al was setting up in clear, daylight conditions. In looking at the tape, it is hard to explain how anybody could purposely put an aluminum mast somewhere between 30 and 60 feet into the obvious overhead high voltage power lines. The footage of the explosion had wild sound of the electrical arcing and one observer saying, "Is Al still in there? God damn·" The scene was captured in a way from which we stand obligated to learn.

The purpose of this paper is to illustrate issues involved in ENG safety to show that the industry, namely employers AND employees, have an obligation to transmit easily learned information and prevent senseless tragedies.

As of April, 1998, there has never been an accident involving a person with documented education of laws regarding the use of elevated structures near power lines. Federal law requires that employees who are operating equipment with capability to reach overhead high voltage lines need to be familiar with such laws (Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 29 1910.268). The law also requires that training needs to be documented. In virtually all of the accidents involving power lines, citations mention violation of CFR29 -1910.268. In this author's definition, an event cannot be deemed an accident if untrained people are operating equipment inasmuch as injuries are contingencies of untrained operators. Accidents are unexpected events. More on this follows.

If a person is given a device that he or she has little or no knowledge of the characteristics of its use, and then is allowed frequent exposure with motivation to use the device with little or no restriction, faulty operation will result. If the faulty use of the device is potentially harmful to that person or others, that contact eventually will result in harming that person, or others.

This sounds extraordinarily cumbersome, but bear with this. If a child were given a razor blade and encouraged to wave it around and play with it, undoubtedly the result would be some sort of injury, either to the child or to a person simply in the area, perhaps trying to help. If the child were shown a videotape, or had other means of practical demonstration of proper and improper use of the device, the child would probably understand concepts of use and misuse of the blade. The child would also probably pick up knowledge which could be transformed into what might be considered good, or at least better, operating habits. Maybe the child would become afraid or respectful of sharp blades.

A 48-foot mast can contact a 348,000-volt power line. This same mast, barely extended 17-21 feet, can contact a 22,000-volt power line. Al Battle was killed when his mast contacted a 19,900 volt line. Graphic courtesy of Niagara Mohawk Power Company.

It has been proven by accidents such as that of Al Battle's unfortunate circumstance that the possibility of an ENG truck operator taking as long as one to four minutes to raise an aluminum conductive telescopic pole into contact with a high voltage line is a reality. If it was an obvious hazard to operators involved in these accidents before the accident, it probably would not have been repeated as many times as it has in ENG truck/power line accident history.

Al Battle's death was not the first. A truck operator in Bakersfield, Calif., was killed in the mid 1980s. To this day, his story remains untold, except to a few. Cara Crosby, a technician for an East Coast station, was injured severely in the same period of time, as was Don Hayford, who lost both legs in an overhead high voltage line incident. Hayford has graced the effort for ENG safety by telling his story for publication. He reached into the vehicle to try to rectify the fact that the mast of his truck was in contact with power lines. "Running away is not the first thing I thought about," Hayford recalled later. "You get in trouble for screwing up your truck." It was his last voluntary move Don made on the legs he was born with.

Don was lucky. He lived. Another person involved in a similar circumstance did not. Andrew Austin died in Greenville, Miss., after the mast on his truck contacted power lines. Andrew was the second employee at his station to lose his life in an electrical accident within a three-month period. Can you imagine a station that lost two employees to electrical accidents and the only thought process which the second one was aware of was that he didn't do the same electrical work the first one did so he wasn't in danger? At least that's what Andrew Austin told his mother when she expressed concern about Andrew's exposure to electrical dangers at his workplace.

David Bingham and Kimberly Arms were reporters and photographers for a medium-sized market station, WOI, in Des Moines, Iowa. In their roles they were called on to perform microwave truck transmission work as well as that required to report a story.

Most people in broadcasting would consider the mix of the two roles demanding. Others commented that at the very least, the dual roles would be distracting.

David and Kimberly were sent to perform a location live shot, sometimes labeled as "live for the sake of live," at a church where there had been recent burglaries. David, according to published accounts, had minimal training on live truck operation from the station's chief photographer, and was only officially guided, according to legal documents, by a station policy in which were the written instructions, "Always avoid power lines and overhead obstructions" when operating the ENG truck.

 

A vehicle could conceivably sit forever in contact with a lower voltage power line with its tires providing enough insulation to prevent grounding. But as soon as something with the ability to ground came along, like humans and animals with a predominantly moisture-based composition, then as much electrical potential as possible could follow that path to ground and produce severe burns. Photo at right: The lettering on the doorjamb of a live truck is a reminder to mast operators to "look up and live."

Kimberly was given about the same level and type of instruction. She had also expressed apprehension about operating the truck, and was unsure of many aspects of its operation. Typical of most ENG operators, she never received a copy of the vehicle operations manual by her station, a move which might have given her more information. The reason that the amount of training she received is somewhat vague is that there never was any documentation of her instructions, course materials, trainer, or training regimen, as federal regulations require. Also, there was no comprehensive testing which an instructor could evaluate to find out what Kimberly really knew or understood from any training her station says she had.

From reports and interviews, it appeared as if David was raising the mast of the live truck after parking it under a 13,000-volt wire on the same side of the street as the telephone poles. A 60,000 volt wire was on the next higher tier of power wires. The two operators, David and Kimberly, apparently looked up, were terribly distracted and too busy, or just forgot.

When the mast made contact with the lower power line, David, who was standing on the ground, probably in contact with the mast-raise lever, and, undoubtedly, other parts of the vehicle, grounded the charge from the overhead wires which flowed through the mast and van and then through his body.

A minor moment of additional demand on the lines usually doesn't matter much, or create enough of a problem for protection circuit breakers to kick in. David was severely burned, with arc burns visible on his right forearm. His hand was heavily blistered. Typical of many victims of an electrical shock, he was thrown clear of the path of electrical conduction.

Kimberly was aware of what happened. She did what emotion, not good judgment or training, would have dictated. She ran to David's aid. At some point, she was either a victim of what power companies call "step and touch," a phenomenon by which grounded voltage causes concentric circles of uneven voltage in the earth around the area of the electrical contact, or she made actual contact with the van. If Kimberly stepped between two concentric rings of differing voltage on the ground, her legs might have stopped working as voltage surged up her legs and surprised her nervous system, perhaps taking her off balance. At that point her rescue momentum could have kept her moving towards the truck. If she made actual contact, she, like David, would have grounded the 13,000 volts. A small amount of hair left on the center catch of the van's side doors and burn marks on the curb left a macabre clue of the horror experienced in the incident.

Whatever way it happened, Kimberly and David's lives changed irreversibly in those few moments. Another person at the scene, a young man named Stephen Myers, responded to the horror he witnessed -- two human beings on the ground, visibly suffering and on fire. He did what he thought was best, as Kimberly did. Stephen ran over to the scene, took an article of clothing and placed it on the burning flesh of David and Kimberly to snuff out the fires. I've watched the videotape of this incident and Stephen's account many times, once with three experienced safety professionals from an electric company. Nobody knows why Stephen Myers was not injured because his contact with David and Kimberly should have been cause for injury.

 Later we'll touch more on the role Stephen might have played.

Another person came upon the scene after hearing calls for help on police scanners in her news car. Sarah Strom, a photographer for another station, drove up and immediately knew what was happening. She knew there was an accident, saw the van with its mast up in the wires, and knew what to do. Sarah immediately left her vehicle and screamed for people to stay clear of the van and get away. Sarah attended the 1996 NPPA Television NewsVideo Workshop in Norman, Okla., and heard a presentation by this author on ENG safety. Her minimal exposure to safety information allowed her to understand the danger. The small addition to her technical vocabulary was sufficient for her to react in a way which saved her life and perhaps those of others.

Sarah's actions were in direct contrast to Kimberly's, or to any other typically untrained person. If Kimberly had known to stay away, this incident would have been recognized as another of the industry's close calls, in which a person was severely injured but not killed. It was the seriousness of Kimberly's injuries which made this incident so spectacular. Historically in many accident situations, injuries sustained by the second person are worse than those to the first. Perhaps it is emotion or distraction which fogs objective thought processes and allows for actions which, when reviewed in a calmer atmosphere, are deemed incorrect.

Another person who had been exposed to the NPPA NewsVideo Workshop's ENG safety presentation knew how important the issue is. "I saw your presentation at the NPPA NewsVideo Workshop in March 1996," he told me last year. "With all you've done to train field crews about ENG masts and power lines, I thought you would like to know about an accident that happened yesterday in Des Moines. The unbelievable happened here. It has shaken everyone."

Then he told me about Kimberly and David, who had been at WOI for about three months when the accident happened. They were a part of the station's new "one-man band" staffing. The station is known for having a bare-bones management style. I expect that most of the photographers will be replaced by reporter/photographers.

Another letter came from Brian Weiss, a producer at WOI-TV. He wrote, "I thought I'd seen it all when our tape operator suffered a seizure right in the middle of the newscast a couple of months ago. But that was nothing compared to what happened to me last week. Last Wednesday night, I'm sitting around waiting for the newscast to start. It was 5:30 and I had just printed scripts. The first call on scanners was for an "unknown problem" at 47th and Franklin. 'That's odd,' I told my anchor. '47th and Franklin is where Kim and Dave are doing their live shot from." I ran over to the radio. Nothing. I ran to the control room to see if a signal was established. Nothing. It was as I was walking out that I heard it on the scanner. Electrocution. Their mast touched a live power line. Two of my closest and dearest friends at the station were lying on the ground--13,200 volts of electricity running through their bodies. From that moment, my life has been a living hell.

Brian continued, "I pass along this story because it is something that shouldn't have happened. Something that I wish will never happen to anyone or their co-workers again. Sometimes you forget how dangerous this job can be. Well here's a reminder·Thousands of live shots take place everyday. They've become routine. So how many take the time to think about what they're doing? How many rush to get things on first? Is a story worth your life? How about the agony you're going to put your family, friends and co-workers through? I'm probably as guilty as the next person, but sometimes you need to step back and use that thing attached to your shoulders."

Using your head means learning the characteristics of equipment you are dealing with, including learning the dangers. That's why laws exist regarding training. Somebody has been there before, and after their incident, or with great foresight, laws were created to try and save the next person.

The medics who responded to the call of the WOI accident knew what was ahead. Medics are trained for electrical mishaps as they are for other burn victims. Electrical injuries are usually just that -- burns, unless the force of the voltage also knocked the victim into another catastrophic circumstance.

Upon arrival the medics found Dave Bingham burned, in shock but responsive. They lifted him to a stretcher. There was time to perform an assessment of his condition as the medics are trained to do. He was stabilized, packed up, and brought to an ambulance for transport to the hospital.

Kim was in grave condition, unconscious and unresponsive. The medics said it appeared as if her head had been part of the contact path for the 13,000 volts, the worst condition for any electrical injury. They lifted her limp body and simply carried her to an ambulance. Any additional injury from not isolating her body on a board or stretcher was secondary, her life, or what life was left, was in question. The full extent of her injuries would not be known for some time. It was more than a month before she regained consciousness.

The effects of electric current on the human body depend upon a variety of circumstances including current, resistance, frequency, and voltage (60 Hz is the worst frequency), pathway, duration of the contact and environmental conditions affecting body's resistance.

According to the Department of Energy's Occupational Safety and Health Agency, the most damaging route of electricity is through the chest cavity or brain. Ventricular fibrillation of the heart (stopping of rhythmic pumping action) can be initiated by a current flow of 75 milliamps or greater for 5 seconds or more through the chest cavity of a 150 pound (68.2 kg) person.

 

It doesn't take much electrical current to cause problems in our bodies. The fact that typical overhead wires provide 100 amp electrical service to many homes is one demonstration of the potential of severe injury from incidental contact. Current from a van's generator (6.5 Kilowatts = 110 volts X 59 amps) is more than enough to command respect.

Nearly instantaneous fatalities can result from either direct paralysis of the respiratory system, failure of rhythmic pumping action, or immediate heart stoppage. Even if the current does not pass through the vital organs or nerve center, severe injuries, such as deep internal burns, can still occur. Burns suffered in electrical accidents can be of three basic types: Electrical burns, arc burns, and thermal contact burns. In electrical burns, tissue damage (whether skin deep or deeper) is caused by the heat from the current flow. The body is unable to dissipate this heat.

Typically, electrical burns are slow to heal. Arc burns, caused by electric arcs, are heat burns similar to burns from high-temperature sources. The temperatures generated by electric arcs can melt material nearby, vaporize metal in close vicinity, and burn flesh and ignite clothing at distances up to 10 feet (3 meters). Lastly, thermal contact burns are those normally experienced from the skin's contact with hot surfaces of overheated electric conductors. Electric shock currents, even at 3 to 10 milliamps, can also cause injuries of an indirect or secondary nature through involuntary muscle reactions. In this case, the involuntary muscle reaction to the electric shock can cause bruises, bone fractures, and even death resulting from collisions or falls.

Damage to the internal tissues may not be immediately apparent after contact with the current. Internal tissue swelling and irritation are also possible. Prompt medical attention can help minimize these effects and avoid possible death. An electrical injury, more often than not, is forever.

David eventually returned to work at WOI in a somewhat restricted condition, typical of burn victims. Kimberly, far more seriously injured, never returned and moved away from the area. Both are facing years of rehabilitation.

WOI-TV was cited by IOSHA for these violations:

  1. No certification of training maintained. Serious Violation. $1,375.

  2. Safety related work practices were not employed to prevent electrical shock or other injuries resulting from either direct or indirect electrical contacts, when work was performed near or on equipment or circuits which were or could be energized. Serious Violation. $1,375.

  3. Vehicles or mechanical equipment capable of having parts of its structure elevated near energized overhead lines were not operated so that a clearance of 10 feet (305 cm) was maintained. Serious Violation. $1,375.

Total fines $4,125.

However, the attorney for WOI-TV persuaded IOSHA to reduce the those fines.

Excerpts of the attorney's letter:

Based on our telephone conference with [IOSHA] this week, IOSHA and WOI-TV seem to agree that Citation 1, Item 1, should be classified as other-than-serious and that Citation 1, Item 2, should be withdrawn. We therefore address Citation 1, Item 3, which states: Vehicles or mechanical equipment capable of having parts of its structure elevated near energized overhead lines were not operated so that a clearance of 10 feet (305 cm) was maintained.

IOSHA cannot prevail on a citation based on violation of clearance distances.

IOSHA's position seems to be that, because the mast of the live van contacted the power line, there must be a violation of a clearance distance requirement for which WOI-TV, as the employer, is responsible. This approach reflects nothing short of strict liability, and is contrary to the federal and Iowa OSH acts.

To prove a prima facia case, IOSHA must prove that WOI-TV had actual or constructive knowledge of its employees' violative behavior·This requires proof that WOI-TV actually knew, or with the exercise of reasonable diligence, could have known of the actions of its employees at the accident site.

Applying these principles to the facts here, it is clear that IOSHA cannot prevail. No supervisor was present when Mr. Bingham and Ms. Arms parked the live van under plainly visible electric power transmission lines and then inexplicably raised the mast (which you witnessed moves very slowly) into contact with those lines. Mr, Bingham and Ms. Arms were not supervisors. They had no authority to hire, fire, or direct the work of other employees. Nor was one even "in charge" of or meaningfully senior to the other. They had identical job descriptions as photojournalists and were to work together. As photojournalists, their roles were interchangeable: They were equally capable of performing as "talent" before the camera or of serving as a photographer.

There was no requirement or need for a supervisor to be present. First, Mr. Bingham and Ms. Arms were on a routine assignment. They were set up for a "live shot" to be broadcast during WOI-TV's 6 p.m.. newscast. They arrived at the site at 5:15 p.m., in plenty of time to establish a link with the station's signal-receiving tower in Alleman and prepare for the broadcast. As discussed below, they were thoroughly trained, experienced, and qualified for their work, so there was no reason for WOI-TV to anticipate that they needed on-site supervision.

It is well settled that there is no per se rule that employees must be supervised at all times. In New York State Electric and Gas, the company was cited because two employees operating a jackhammer failed to wear safety glasses. The company contended that it lacked knowledge of the violative conduct, because neither employee was a supervisor.

The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) did not decide whether the employees were supervisors, but held that if neither one was, then the Company's safety program was per se defective because adequate supervision was lacking.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected this analysis, and remanded the case to OSHRC with directions to analyze the employers defense "without applying a per se rule that a safety policy is inadequate unless employees are under constant supervision."17 BNA OSHC at 1659 "Insisting that each employee be under continual supervisor surveillance is a patently unworkable burden on employers," the court said.Id at 658

The court further stated: [Under the Act...the Commission [may] only require a reasonable policy and...does not impose absolute liability. The Commission may not, however, infer that the employer's safety policy is inadequate because an employee worked at a field site where no supervisor was present.

Thus, Mr. Bingham's and Ms. Arms' knowledge of their own violative behavior in elevating the mast into power lines is NOT imputable to WOI-TV. To sustain Citation 1, Item 3, therefore, IOSHA must prove that WOI-TV had constructive knowledge of the violative behavior. This IOSHA cannot do. As we will show at trial, if necessary, WOI-TV had a sound safety program that promoted compliance with the station's rules about avoiding power lines, not to mention raising a mast near power lines.

The letter also noted that the chief photographer was experienced in live van operation and went through "every step, start to finish, involved in raising the mast. He also ensured that Mr. Bingham and Ms. Arms were observed to see that they performed all functions correctly and safely."

The letter stated, "More importantly, [the chief photographer] stressed during the training that the question of whether a mast may contact a power line should never arise because parking sites should be selected that are free of all overhead obstructions. He made it clear that WOI-TV news policy is that it is better to give up a live shot than to risk parking in the vicinity of overhead obstructions.

"WOI-TV reinforced these messages in several ways. On Aug. 6, 1997, that station issued a written safety rule directing employees to avoid overhead power lines. Thus, in a document titled 'Mission Statement - Live Van Operations Guide,' WOI-TV stated: 'Always avoid power lines and overhead obstructions.'

"Also, three weeks before the accident, the chief photographer distributed an article from the national photojournalists' association magazine reporting on an accident in Mississippi involving a mast contacting a power line. He placed a copy in the mailbox of each photojournalist and discussed the article with each of them as well as others in the newsroom.

"WOI-TV reasonably believed that its employees would act in accord with their experience and training. The hazard was obvious and easily avoided; raising the mast was uncomplicated; and there was a safety rule requiring the avoidance of overhead power lines. Both employees had hands-on training, and successfully operated the mast on prior assignments.

"In sum, it is difficult to foresee how IOSHA can prevail on item 3. We hope that upon reflection, IOSHA will accept WOI-TV's settlement offer."

Result of the letter to IOSHA? Items 1 and 2 were "vacated" and the fine for Item 3 was reduced to $1,000.

Total of all fines: $1,000.

If you are involved in an ENG operation, especially in a role of training people, scrutinize your company's safety program as if you were your news department's investigative team. If it doesn't have one, it means operators need to take it upon themselves to understand the guidelines of safe operation, or YOU need to, then train them.

The victims, and families of the victims, are stuck with the scars and challenges of the injuries forever. The employer hires another employee.

If there is anything apparent regarding ENG safety from this paper it is that the accidents certainly happen, that they are serious by circumstance and result, and that their consequences last a lifetime. Even those not super-seriously injured in mishaps not discussed in the paper (there have been many close calls) have burn scars or, at the very least, very scary memories of their incidents. Aside from the lesson learned, no close call has ever been related as a pleasant circumstance worth repeating.

There have been a few incidents which have gone through the court system, and "awards" have been given. Because employees cannot sue their employers, these awards have been given for product liability. In some way, the manufacturers of the trucks have been blamed for accidents and then fined over product liability fine.

One award was for injuries to a man whose accident took him out of work for almost a year and left him with scarring on his hand and foot, with possible full or fractional loss of the use of his foot. The award was approximately $200,000, most likely made up of settlements from a variety of manufacturers. His accident occurred in the first week of work at his station and he had no previous ENG experience. He AND the person teaching him were not properly trained, nor had they ever had access to training literature provided by the manufacturer. Vehicle staff assignments and training were handled by the news department, independent of the engineering department, until after the accident.

In product liability suits, joint-and-several liability laws apply. This means that everyone who may have any connection to the incident would be named in a suit. As time goes on, many may be removed for one reason or another, leaving those who cannot disassociate from liability. On a mast, for example, there would be a few companies involved, such as the manufacturers of the van, mast, pan and tilt head, microwave antenna, mounting bracket, and other accessory manufacturers.

Kimberly has filed suit, at least against the manufacturer of the truck she and David were operating at the time of their accident, and most likely to several other manufacturers as well. It is her only way of getting any compensation for the fact that she will be undergoing a tremendous amount of medical treatment in the foreseeable future. She will probably be unable to work for a while longer, and her career is, no doubt, affected, perhaps forever, because her burns caused a great deal of scarring on her head and face.

In reports of her accident, Kimberly was described as a 25-year-old newlywed. It may be said that there is no end to its tragic nature of this accident. Kimberly was also described as gifted in her personality and intellect, and all interviews by this author would substantiate that. Kimberly is a wonderful person with the world ahead of her, who was involved in a predictable, foreseeable, and tragic event.

Can money make up for what she has lost? The companies which manufacture the trucks are not large. Chances are there wouldn't, or couldn't be a massive payoff if a product liability charge could be substantiated, and an affirmative judgment received. The companies would hopefully settle out of court, so the accident victim would not have a lengthy trial and with appeals adding more trauma and tension to the already traumatic ordeal. Either way, is there any such thing as a "win" after all is said?

When asked about safety, one veteran chief photographer might have said it best when he that safety is an issue to management when employees make it an issue. Consistent with that point of view, it is up to every person in any professional environment to understand the dangers of their environment and then work with their management to create a knowledge base for information which will protect the employee, AND the station, broadcast group, or corporation.

Remember Stephen Myers, the young man who put out the fires on David's and Kimberly's bodies? Professional electric industry observers who have analyzed that incident can only attribute the fact that he was not electrocuted from the actions he took to luck. The actions of would-be rescuers like Kimberly and Stephen who approach bodies of the electric-shock-injured people frequently have led to more injuries. Had Stephen been injured or killed without the protection of employer-employee relationship laws which prevent employees from suing their employers, such as workers' compensation laws, the liability of the station and subsequent lawsuit would have been potentially huge for the station and its parent corporation. Really huge.

Remember the "step and touch" rings of voltage which emanate from grounded conductors in electrical incidents? This may have been a factor in Kimberly's accident. One electrical accident on record in Brazil killed 29 people and injured more than 50 when a utility pole fell and its power line hit rain-soaked ground. It was reported that the "rings" were measured up to 450 feet from the point of contact. People 90 feet away from the grounding site, touching a metal fence, were part of the number of those electrocuted.

There is no doubt that training, beginning with familiarity with the principles of electricity in compliance with federal regulations, and following through to specifics of operation of EVERY station's remote vehicles, is paramount to diminishing the possibility of accidents. It is an issue which every employee should make the highest priority because it has one of the highest penalties.

There is no easy financial pot of gold at the end of the injured-on-the-job rainbow. As more and more cases are settled in the courts, it is ever more apparent, as stated earlier, that the person with the last clear chance to save themselves (YOU!) is the best resource for a campaign of workplace safety.