Energize Inbox, August 2019

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Dear Editor

In response to the question you asked in your recent Lead Editorial comment “Who’s to blame when someone dies because of a power outage” (Energize, July 2019), I wish to offer the following comments.

According to South African law, no electricity supply authority has any recuse in the responsible supervision of electrocution incidents. To answer your specific question, should a person die due to a disconnected power supply, the applicable authority would have to demonstrate firsthand how it, in terms article 26 of Act 4 of 2006, acted in a responsible manner to have averted a fatal incident. With the unpredictability of the South African postal service, merely dispatching a notice will most likely not count as a prudent action.

Although this opinion has been shared with numerous legal entities over the past few years, especially following cases where members of the public have been electrocuted, it seems that this dereliction by the electricity industry still hasn’t caught the attention of the legal fraternity.

One would expect that, if said laws were properly applied, more convictions would follow incidents of death by electrocution, but these incidents seem to be overlooked. Also, Eskom Distribution would be subjected to greater oversight if it deployed adequately certified engineers to take responsibility of manageable levels of reticulation networks.

This is vitally important, considering the number of electrocution incidents across the country. Such incidents should not be judged as isolated events, to be handled by some faceless supply authority, but as per the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act of 1993, there needs to be responsible person (appointed as per the regulation) who has to demonstrate conscientious effort in preventing all such accidents.

This means that in any legal proceeding related to the death of someone by electrocution, the first fact to be determined would be who the Article 16(2) appointee is, and this person would be a primary respondent in such an investigation.

In the case where such a person is not appointed by the CEO of the electricity utility, the CEO would be seen as the responsible person. This is instrumental to the core objectives of the OHS Act.

In incidences where a member of the public dies as a result of an electricity-related event, the following fundamental questions would have to be answered:

  • Was a responsible person duly appointed? They would be called to account.
  • Can such a person demonstrate non-negligence?
  • What steps did the responsible person take in preventing the fatality from occurring? Merely informing a member of the public of the dangers of electricity is nowhere near enough as the onus of superior knowledge is, in terms of the Act, placed upon the responsible person.

The general situation, at an operational level within the electricity distribution industry, is however that the authorities do not adhere to these key legislative requirements.

Electrical utilities, by tolerating the magnitude of substandard electrical installations, are failing to comply with their responsibility to protect the public by preventing this widespread danger within residential communities. Simply identifying illegal connections does not release them from their responsibility. Ensuring safe electrical connections should be viewed as a human rights issue.

This is then, is the principal reason why electrical fatalities (electrocutions) occur so frequently in South Africa. It seems that until legal recourse is sought against the relevant responsible person at the power utility, South Africans will continue to die from electrical-related incidents.

Theunis Steyn, Pr. Eng

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