How does electrocution from power lines cause death?

Helping families make sense of what happened to their loved ones

Electrical hazards cause more than 300 deaths each year among the U.S. workforce, not to mention members of the general public who are exposed to power line hazards. And the highest fatality rate among those deaths is contact with overhead power lines.

Although it’s inherently difficult, family members of people who have been tragically killed often want to understand what happened, so they can make sense of such an abrupt, painful loss. Here we’re providing information about how death from electrocution occurs.

 

To start, the electrical current enters the body at the point of contact with the power source, usually a hand or the head, and it travels through the body until it exits at the nearest point of ground, generally taking the most direct route. A person can be electrocuted either by direct contact with the power line, or indirectly, by touching something the power line contacts.

It’s important to understand the extreme electrical voltage from power lines. Typically, it’s between 4,800 volts and 13,200 volts. For comparison, the voltage used in the electric chair for death penalty situations was between 5,000 and 200 volts.

If the current pathway travels through the heart, mechanisms of death from electric injury include:

  • Ventricular fibrillation: A condition in which there’s uncoordinated contraction of the cardiac muscle of the ventricles in the heart, making them quiver rather than contract properly.
  • Bradycardia: A slower than normal heart rate.
  • Respiratory arrest: The cessation of normal breathing due to failure of the lungs to function effectively.
  • Hyperthermia: Elevated body temperature due to failed thermoregulation that occurs when a body produces or absorbs more heat than it dissipates. In electrocution cases, hyperthermia occurs from thermal injury to the tissues.
  • Fluid loss.
  • Metabolic acidosis: A condition that occurs when the body produces excessive quantities of acid or when the kidneys are not removing enough acid from the body.
  • Direct injury to vital structures.
  • Burns.
  • Blasts and explosions.
  • Secondary trauma: Meaning secondary injuries from falling after contact with power lines.
  • Sepsis: Occurs when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight the infection trigger inflammatory responses throughout the body.
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