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The high cost of electric injuries

By Stefan Dubowski
| www.cos-mag.com
Paul Hebert with wife Lorraine

Paul Hebert is a survivor.

Working for an electrical company in Fahler, Alta., in 1989, the experienced lineman received a massive shock while repairing a downed power line. The incident, which sent 14,000 volts of power through his body and threw him 20 feet, seriously burned his limbs. Doctors had to amputate his legs, right arm and several left fingers.

Hebert had to learn to use prosthetics. In retrospect, he says, that was relatively easy.

“The emotional and mental parts were difficult to deal with.”

Hebert experienced physical and psychological echoes of the incident for years. Many of those challenges proved hard for him to handle — especially effects related to anxiety, depression and memory loss.

“When I look back, I don’t even know how I made it,” he says.

Hebert isn’t alone. According to experts, people injured in electrical incidents often face the same struggles he did. Effective treatment demands not only rehabilitation of the body, but also support that enables victims to learn to handle the less obvious psychological impacts.

Electrical incidents

There are three kinds of electrical incident: burns, shocks and fatal electrocutions.

Burns vary from first- to third-degree, requiring weeks of recovery and, in the worst cases, skin grafts and amputations.

“It’s about the damage to the tissue,” says Joel Moody, strategic safety analyst at the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA). “When there’s enough energy, the tissue that is normally healthy dies. And because it’s now dead, infection such as gangrene can set in, therefore it has to be removed.”

Electrical shocks can be particularly damaging given the immediate effect they sometimes have on a person’s body. In certain cases, the shock causes muscle contractions, so people are unable to release their grip on the source of electricity, explains Manuel Gomez, director of research at St. John’s Rehab, a dedicated electrical injury rehabilitation program located at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. The longer the victim is in contact with electricity, the greater the likelihood of injury.

If the individual happens to be working up a utility pole or on scaffolding, there is also the risk of falling and suffering from broken bones and other internal trauma.

Heart damage is a major concern. Gomez notes electrical incidents can cause arrhythmia, a condition in which the heart doesn’t pump blood as effectively as it normally would. This reduced capacity results in lower blood oxygenation and can potentially worsen the damage from the initial incident because the body can’t repair itself as efficiently.

“I have a hypothesis that electrical injury is not localized,” Gomez says. “It’s a systemic injury, because the electrical current travels throughout the body.”

Victims can suffer physical numbness, anxiety, sleeping difficulties and memory problems. These symptoms can appear later — days or even years after the incident. Because some of the effects of an electrical injury do not manifest physically — such as sleeplessness and depression — injured people sometimes find employers and family members lack sympathy.

“They may think these are intentionally created by the (injured) individual,” Gomez says.

ESA notes low-voltage incidents — those involving 1,000 or fewer volts — are just as dangerous as high-voltage incidents. In a pamphlet on improving electrical safety, the organization says low-voltage issues include difficulty walking, weakness and long-term “stroke-like” effects.


PTSD

Gomez and others at St. John’s Rehab studied the link between electrical incidents and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The researchers found a high prevalence of PTSD among outpatients with electrical burns.

This may affect the likelihood of an injured worker getting back to his pre-injury job. Gomez says just 34 per cent of people injured in electrical incidents return to work. Inability to work affects their incomes and adds stress to their lives — as well as their families.

That certainly was Hebert’s experience. He didn’t return to full-time work after the incident. His injuries also affected his wife Lorraine.

“She suffered a lot, too. She gave up a business.”

Lorraine had run a restaurant, which she later sold so she could take care of her husband.

There is no doubt Hebert suffered from PTSD.

“I had ringing in my ears, poor memory and I couldn’t sleep,” he says, explaining these symptoms are common to people with PTSD.

The diagnosis, however, took a while. Recall that Hebert’s incident happened in 1989. PTSD was an uncommon diagnosis back then. Instead, his doctors suggested the ringing in his ears was the result of a loud work environment. They prescribed pills to help him sleep, but the side effects included depression, which made a bad situation even worse.

“I didn’t find out I was going through post-traumatic stress disorder until 15 years after the accident,” he says, explaining that he only learned about PTSD when an acquaintance suggested he should read about it. After researching it, Hebert realized he likely had it.

“I called the compensation board and they got me counselling. You need to learn how to deal with it but, once you do, you can,” Hebert says.

These days, Hebert finds he must write things down to supplement his poor memory. Staying active helps. He plays golf and goes to the gym regularly.

Hebert’s recovery is ongoing. He spends part of the year living in Arizona. Following a bout of osteoporosis, he worries about falling and breaking a bone or two, and the snow and ice of an average Canadian winter is a hazard he would rather avoid.

He remains active in his home country, too. Hebert is now a motivational speaker, discussing the dangers of electrical work and the long-term effects of injuries from electrical incidents.

At his speaking events he talks about the importance of not cutting corners, identifying risks and eliminating them, and having an emergency rescue plan.

Although it took years for him to discover the tools to manage the long-term psychological effects of that 14,000-volt shock, Hebert has used what he has learned to help make his life better and educate others about electrical safety.

He recommends that people injured in electrical incidents engage mental health-care professionals as soon as possible.

“Get psychological help, first thing. You might not want to admit you have problems, but it alters your life forever, and that’s really hard to accept,” he says.

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Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer based in Ottawa. Contact him at dubowski@stiffsentences.com.

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