Olympic Hero Energizes Electrical Safety
Cliff Meidl’s heroic determination to succeed despite physical adversity is inspiration personified. That’s why the kayaker was chosen by his teammates to carry the the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games. But Meidl is more than a hero he’s a miracle. In 1986, then a 22-year-old construction worker, Meidl accidentally struck three buried power lines with a jackhammer. A 30,000-volt electrical explosion blew off part of his scalp and launched him out of the ditch. He teetered on its edge before he fell back in and touched the live lines one more time, crisping his legs.
Rushed to an emergency medical center, Meidl went into cardiac arrest for two minutes but was revived only to be told both of his legs would probably have to be amputated.
“Sometimes I wonder how I lived,” the Olympian says.
So did his doctors.
“The electrical energy essentially blew out both knees and one of his toes,” says Malcolm Lesavoy, clinical professor of plastic surgery at UCLA and a private practice specialist in burn reconstruction. Unlike most burns, electrical burns tend to damage from the inside out, cauterizing tissues, veins and arteries deep within the limbs and leaving them unable to circulate blood.
In a pioneering procedure, Lesavoy and UCLA orthopedic surgeons repeatedly removed large amounts of clotted infected tissue inside his legs before detaching part of his calf muscles to form flaps to cover Meidl’s knees.
“Amazingly, he hung on,” Lesavoy recalls, “and his legs were saved.”
Formerly a promising soccer player, Meidl was left unable to run he still can’t and is barely able to walk. But his friends, including high school beach buddy and Olympic volleyball hopeful Eric Fonoimoana, encouraged him to take up a new sport.
“There was plenty of water in the ocean, and I didn’t have to run, so I chose kayaking.”
Against all odds, a decade later Meidl earned a spot on the 1996 Olympic team. In 2000, he joined the elite 15% of athletes who qualify for two Olympiads.
Now a financial analyst and motivational speaker, Meidl will address next week’s Construction Safety Council annual conference in Chicago. Feb. 4-10 also is National Burn Awareness Week.
“If we can just get the message out that these electrical injuries are common but preventable in both industry and the home, we’ll save lives,” he says.
About one person a day dies from electrocution in the USA. Many more are injured 4,000 to 10,000 a year. Accurate numbers for electrocutions and the resulting serious burns are elusive because many such burns are not reported beyond the local level, and burn statistics may not list electricity as the initial cause of a fire.
Deaths caused by electrical accidents are roughly equally split between household and workplace settings. And they occur in even the most regulated and knowledge-rich environments.
Last week the BBC reported that the producers of The X-Files were fined $41,000 for a fatal accident that occurred on the set last year. One crew member was killed and six were injured when their scaffolding touched an overhead electrical wire.
Los Angeles television news reporter Adrienne Alpert also was severely burned last May when her television van’s antenna was elevated into a similar electrical power line. Doctors were forced to amputate her left arm and portions of her right foot.
Compounding the misfortune of these and similar tragedies is the fact that many probably could have been prevented. According to Tom Broderick, chairman of the safety council and BuildSafe.org, “The vast majority of both workplace and home electrical accidents don’t have to happen.”
How to protect yourself
Winter is the worst time for domestic and industrial electrical accidents, primarily because of wet conditions. The combination of moisture and electricity can be lethal. These basic precautions can help avoid disaster:
- Beware of electrical lines. Electric shock of any sort, even as low as 5 volts or what some Christmas tree lights conduct, can cause heart arrest. Electricity from high-power wires including lines that run both above and below the ground can kill you.
- Even though most underground electrical lines are marked, some are not. “I was totally unaware of the hidden and unmarked underground conduits which were beneath me,” Meidl says.
- Visible wires are equally unsafe. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of high-power wires are not insulated, although they sometimes have a very thin coating to prevent weather wear. But that coating is easily arced.
- Special care should be taken whenever you’re close to these wires. Tree trimming or removing wet leaves from the roof, for example, can be hazardous.
- The minimum safe distance for any object, plant or person from the least powerful overhead lines is 10 feet. News reporter Alpert’s van antenna appeared to be dangerously inside that range even before it was extended.
- Turn off the power. Whether you’re changing a fuse or installing a new lamp, “You’ve got to turn off the power to your home,” Broderick says.
- Keep appliances away from water. It sounds obvious, but thousands of accidents occur every year involving water and home appliances. No appliance of any sort, from blenders to blow dryers, should ever be near sinks, bath tubs or showers.
- “The water within you, or even in a piece of seemingly dry wood, can act also as a perfect conduit for massive power,” Broderick says.
- Install GFCIs. Experts estimate that over 60% of all home electrocutions could be prevented if Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters were installed. Ground faults occur when the current in an appliance strays from its designed path.
- GFCIs detect even the smallest short or surge and stop the power flow. They can be installed inside electrical control panels or as simple wall socket plug-ins.
- Unplug all small appliances when not in use. On or off, any appliance can electrocute you if it falls into a sink or bathtub.
- Use correct fuses. Many older homes still have fuses. Check that the amperage is correct, and never use a penny under a burned fuse as a substitute.
- Watch for warmth. If outlets feel warm to the touch, have a qualified electrician check the wiring. The same thing goes for lamp fittings. Turn them off and unplug them. Electric pads can cause serious burns, even at low settings. And never tuck in electric blankets. The confined heat can start a fire.
- Never plug an electric heater into an extension cord. “The typical power demands of even a small electric heater cause many extension cords to overheat,” Meidl says. Instead, rely on better home wiring to handle the load by plugging home heaters directly into wall outlets.
- Avoid overloading outlets with multiple heaters. This keeps heat from building up in home wiring.
- Check for wear and damaged connections. Thin or frayed wires translate into shocks, burns and fires.
- Check extension cord capacity. “That tag on the extension cord tells you its maximum wattage,” Meidl says. “By checking the appliances you have connected to the cord, you can see if you’ve exceeded the capacity.”
- Some extension cords can burn out before home circuit breakers or fuses can do their job. Buy only cords with an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) certification on the tag.
- Don’t piggyback. “Extension cords are not a substitute for adequate home wiring,” Broderick says. “Plugging them into each other increases the heat and danger.”
- Don’t place cords under a rug or on a wall. Rugs hide frayed wires and can ignite from the heat, as can many walls.
- Use grounded cords. Three-prong grounded extensions cords must be used with tools and appliances that have three prongs. If your home doesn’t have three-prong outlets, “they can be easily installed,” Meidl says.
- Childproof your home. If your children are younger than 5, don’t let them play with electrical toys. Put plastic safety caps in all unused electrical outlets; be sure all light fixtures have bulbs; and place cribs, playpens, high chairs and other baby furniture well away from cords and appliances.
- “Your children have to rely on what you know and do to protect them,” Broderick says. Take these steps now so you and your loved ones won’t be sorry later.