In 2017, the life of Brisbane handyman Stephen Viner was cut tragically short when he entered a flooded basement to check on malfunctioning pumps.
When a Coroner's report found his death was caused by improperly decommissioned electrical equipment, Stephen's daughter-in-law reached out to share his story — hoping it could serve as a warning, and protect others working with electricity from the fate that befell Stephen.
Stephen Viner was a handyman who had, in the past, performed work on this same Brisbane property — including the installation of two submersible pumps in the basement, which was prone to flooding.
On the morning of February 6, 2017 he returned to the premises to investigate why these pumps had failed to operate.
Other than the pumps — installed to combat rising groundwater — the basement was unused, containing old condensers and refrigeration units. Stephen had been told by the property owner, also his employer, that this equipment had been decommissioned and the only live electricity in the basement was the outlet powering the pumps, and maybe the switch for a ceiling light (which didn't work).
At coronial inquest, after Stephen's body was found lifeless floating in a foot of water, it emerged that this wasn't the case.
One of the disused refrigeration units had not been properly decommissioned. It remained connected to two out of the three phases of the power circuit; and later testing found it was capable of being enlivened when an isolator switch was flipped to ‘on’.
As Stephen sought to investigate the power failure in the outlet to which the pumps had been connected, he likely flipped this switch — leaning over the blue refrigeration unit, and making contact with exposed conductive parts.
The circuit contained no safety switch, and the isolator switch had not been properly tagged or locked.
After Stephen's death, the lead ESO Inspector found that circuits and power to the basement were not effectively earthed —posing “an immediate electrical risk defect because if a fault occurred from a live conductor to an exposed conducive part requiring effective earthing, a person potentially might receive a fatal electric shock from contacting the exposed conductive part.”
“There was an increased risk of electric shock of anyone entering the basement while it was flooded and the electrical installation was energised as the electrical installation in the basement was not electrically safe due to serious defects.”
In Stephen's case, the lack of appropriate care taken by whoever 'decommissioned' this equipment two decades prior led to an electric shock, triggering an abnormal cardiac arrhythmia and, ultimately, death.
The inquest into Stephen's death concluded that "his death is no [sic] related to his lack of experience or training but due to the fact not all of the electrical equipment in the basement had been decommissioned as he would have reasonably believed."
For those of us who work around electrical equipment everyday, this should serve as a powerful reminder of the dangers of work that's been improperly or incapably performed before we get on-site — and, of course, of the critical importance of following proper safety precautions in performing our own work.
Our thanks to Samantha, Stephen's daughter-in-law, for sharing these images and story with us.