August 29, 2012
High Voltage

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

For Thomas E. Hamrick II, April 19, 2006, was a life-altering day. Thomas was an electrician for a company called Glunt Industries, Inc., which manufactures steel and aluminum mill equipment. On that April day in 2006, Glunt experienced a plant-wide power failure. Thomas was told to investigate the problem.

He went to the plant’s main electrical breaker cabinet, but he wasn’t using or wearing any electrical safety equipment. The main breaker cabinet housed two separate breakers, each with a separate cover panel that had to be removed in order to access the circuitry inside. The right side of the breaker had 440/480 volts, and the left side, 4,160.

Thomas knew that the voltage on the left side was higher than on the right, but he didn’t know by how much. He claimed that the cabinet had no high-voltage warning signs or any signs specifying the voltage. While Thomas was standing in front of the cabinet, it exploded, and he was seriously injured.

The inquiry that followed largely focused on whether Thomas had accessed the higher-voltage left side of the cabinet – an action that Glunt claimed was forbidden by company policy.

Physical evidence established that the higher-voltage side of the cabinet was damaged, but it didn’t conclusively establish that Thomas had opened it on that side. In fact, Glunt’s safety manual indicated that when two unequal circuits were adjacent, a minor shock from the lower-voltage side could rebound into the higher circuit and cause an explosion.

Figuring out exactly what happened was even more difficult because Thomas’s memory of events was inconsistent, due at least in part to the massive head trauma he sustained. His earliest and most detailed statement of record indicated that he opened the cabinet’s higher-voltage side and inadvertently crossed some wires. But a later affidavit disavowed any memory of his actions just before the explosion. Still later, Thomas testified that he was certain that he had never opened the left panel, only the right.

Thomas was awarded workers’ compensation for his injuries, but he sought additional compensation because he alleged that Glunt had violated a specific safety requirement. As the name implies, specific safety requirements are more detailed safety measures that employers are required to provide in certain circumstances.

The requirement in question in this case directs employers to supply protective apparatus to employees working on specified electrical equipment. The requirement states: “Unless the electrical conductors or equipment to be worked on are isolated from all possible sources of voltage or are effectively grounded, the employer shall provide protective equipment approved for the voltage involved, such as rubber gloves with protectors, rubber sleeves ... insulator hoods, blankets, and access boards.”

When Thomas applied for additional compensation for the violation of the specific safety requirement, his application was heard by a staff hearing officer at the Industrial Commission of Ohio, which handles such issues.

Glunt admitted that with the possible exception of the safety gloves, it had not provided Thomas with the safety equipment required. Glunt tried to excuse that failure by arguing that the safety requirement did not apply. It denied that the main breaker cabinet was “equipment to be worked on” within the meaning of the requirement. Glunt claimed that company policy prohibited any employee – including Thomas – from working on equipment exceeding 440/480 volts.

According to Glunt, Thomas had been negligent in accessing the main breaker – a claim that, if true, might shield Glunt from liability for violating the specific safety requirement.

Glunt also tried to maintain that there was no relationship between the absence of safety equipment and Thomas’s injuries. Glunt argued that it would have provided safety equipment if Thomas had asked for it and speculated that if the equipment had been provided, Thomas wouldn’t have used it anyway.

None of these arguments persuaded the hearing officer, who granted Thomas’s application for additional compensation after first determining that the specific safety requirement in question applied to his situation. The hearing officer rejected Glunt’s contention that the main breaker was not “equipment to be worked on,” because he believed Glunt had specifically ordered Thomas to check that breaker.

The hearing officer stressed that the requirement imposed a clear duty upon Glunt to provide appropriate safety gear that wasn’t contingent upon the employee’s requesting the gear. Therefore, Glunt couldn’t claim that Thomas was negligent.

After that ruling, Glunt filed a complaint with the court of appeals, alleging that the Commission had abused its discretion, but the court disagreed. After that, the case came before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio.

The safety requirement in question applies when the “equipment to be worked on” hasn’t been isolated from all possible sources of electricity or is not effectively grounded. Glunt argued that the main breaker was not “equipment to be worked on” because company policy prohibited employees from working on it.

The hearing officer rejected that proposition after he concluded that a Glunt supervisor had ordered Thomas to investigate the main breaker. But there was no evidence to support this finding, and Glunt maintained that this error was fatal. We disagreed.

Glunt believed that Thomas caused the explosion by opening the higher-voltage left panel. There was some question as to whether Thomas was authorized to work on circuitry over 440/480 volts, but no one disputes that he was permitted to service equipment of 440/480 or below, which included the right-side circuit.

This fact alone negated Glunt’s claim that Thomas’s mere presence at the main breaker cabinet was unauthorized.  Plus, the evidence suggests at least two possible causes for the explosion that implicated the cabinet’s lower-voltage right side – the side Thomas was unquestionably authorized to service.

We concluded that Glunt’s main breaker cabinet fit the safety requirement’s definition of “equipment to be worked on.” We also concluded that Glunt did not satisfy the requirement because it didn’t supply Thomas with “protective equipment approved for the voltage involved.”

By a seven-to-zero vote, we affirmed the court of appeals’ judgment awarding Thomas additional compensation.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State ex rel. Glunt Industries, Inc. v. Indus. Comm., 132 Ohio St.3d 78, 2012-Ohio-2125. Case No. 2010-1948. Decided May 16, 2012. Opinion Per Curiam.