Dunfermline sheriff rules death of gardener who was electrocuted while using hedge trimmer could have been prevented

A sheriff in Dunfermline has determined that the death of a man who was electrocuted while operating a hedge trimmer could have been avoided if a risk assessment had been carried out on the area he was working in.

The deceased, David Anderson, was a self-employed landscape gardener. He was declared dead less than an hour after an incident at a property in Dunino, Fife on 14 October 2020. At the time of his death he was 59 years old.

The inquiry was conducted by Summary Sheriff Alison Michie under the provisions of the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Act 2016. Mr Anderson’s family did not participate in the inquiry, and no other party save for the Crown was represented.

Exclusion zone

On the day of the accident, the deceased and his son Stuart, whom he employed to work with him, arrived at the property, which was privately owned, to carry out hedge cutting work on beech hedges in the garden. He had visited the property to carry out this exercise on two previous occasions. An electrical power line ran above part of the hedge at a height of approximately 5.5 metres above ground level, however neither the deceased nor his son considered that they would be a problem.

The two men decided to split up and cut the hedge from different sides. In order to cut the top of the side of the hedge he was working on with his trimmer, the deceased stood on an aluminium ladder and fitted a shaft extension between the trimmer’s blade and the motor. He was discovered unresponsive by his son at approximately 12:20, who performed CPR until paramedics arrived but all attempts to revive the deceased were unsuccessful. His life was formally pronounced extinct at 13:04 hours.

An autopsy conducted on 19 October 2020 concluded that Mr Anderson had died as a result of electrocution causing a cardiac arrythmia and sudden death. The site was inspected by an inspector from the Health and Safety Executive on 21 October. The HSE concluded that, in preparing to come down from the ladder and move to another part of the hedge, Mr Anderson had brought the cutter back towards his body and lifted it simultaneously, causing it to come into contact with the power lines.

It was noted that HSE guidance notes on working under power lines recommended that where it was impossible to switch the power off that an exclusion zone be established, with a minimum distance of 3 metres for the voltage that was under consideration. The evidence of the HSE was that the relevant area of the hedge could have been marked out as an exclusion zone to remind Mr Anderson of the presence of the overhead lines. It was submitted for the Crown that the failure to adhere to the HSE guidance was a defect in a system of working which had contributed to the death of Mr Anderson.

Familiar work

In her decision, Summary Sheriff Michie noted: “The familiarity of the work he was doing may have led Mr Anderson to overlook the danger from the power lines. While Mr Anderson would not have had the benefit of knowing the measurements of the ladder, hedge cutter and height of the power lines, had a risk assessment been conducted in advance of starting work it may have alerted Mr Anderson to the combined height of his ladder and the extended hedge cutter and the proximity to the overhead lines.”

She continued: “Had that risk been identified it should have led Mr Anderson to identify an exclusion zone in the area beneath the overhead lines. Identifying an exclusion zone in advance of starting work serves as a reminder of the danger and protects against momentary lapses in concentration while focussed on the work. This may also have led Mr Anderson to decide to carry out the hedge cutting in the area beneath the power lines in a different way.”

The sheriff concluded: “On the evidence available to me, there were no reasonable precautions which might be taken to prevent other deaths in similar circumstances. As I close this determination I would wish to join with the other participants to this inquiry in offering my sincere condolences to the family of David Anderson for their loss.”

It was therefore concluded that the failure to follow the HSE guidance and to conduct a risk assessment and create and observe an exclusion zone was a defect in the system of working which contributed to the death of Mr Anderson.

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