New Zealand

Nelson electrician Stephen Burton’s failure to carry out ‘simple task’ linked to death of builder Craig Johnston

By Tracey Neal, Open Justice journalist of NZ Herald

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

A judge has found it “incomprehensible” that a man lost his life after an electrician failed to carry out a simple task to remove a wall switch to check the wiring.

In a decision released Monday, Stephen (Steve) Graham Burton has been convicted on a charge related to work he did on a central Nelson property in February 2020.

Much-loved dad and partner Craig Johnston died from an electric shock while working at the same property weeks later.

Judge David Ruth said that while there were complexities involved in Burton’s task of installing a new rangehood and fan, if he had carried out the “very simple act” of removing a wall switch unit to check wiring, Johnston’s death might have been avoided.

Burton denied he was at fault, and told the Nelson District Court last week that he was competent and reliable, that he’d done all the required testing, and that the installation was safe to use.

One of two charges brought by WorkSafe New Zealand against Burton has now been proven, in that Burton failed to take action knowing it was reasonably likely to cause serious harm to any person or significant property damage, and failed to prevent so far as reasonably practicable serious harm or significant property damage, has now been proven.

No verdict was required for a second, alternative charge of negligently doing an electrical installation in a manner that was dangerous to life because of the finding on the first charge.

On the afternoon of 19 March 2020, 53-year-old Johnston was found motionless on the floor by the homeowner who had hired him to build a casing around a newly installed rangehood above the cooktop.

One of his shoes had come off, both hands were clenched, and his left ring fingernail was ripped off.

The rangehood was hanging partially from the bulkhead.

He was later found to have died of cardiac arrhythmia, triggered by an electric shock after he had touched the rangehood that was “enlivened” by an electrical fault.

His partner of 35 years, Ruth McAlpine told NZME of the added burden of coping with his death just before the country went into Covid-related lockdown, while his son Jamie Johnston said his dad had been the biggest influence in his life.

Electrical inspector Simon Holmes found that the earth conductor of the socket outlet installed by Burton was connected by way of a three-core cable to the live, rather than the earth pin at the wall switch.

Essentially, there were two components of the existing rangehood unit connected individually to the wall switch that Burton should have recognised needed further investigation.

Holmes found that when the wall switch for the circuit to the socket outlet was turned on, electricity flowed through the earth pin of the socket outlet into the rangehood, resulting in the metalwork on the rangehood becoming “electrically enlivened” at a number of points around it.

Further detailed investigations by electrical experts uncovered a method of wiring that was outdated by a law change in the early 2000s, and that Burton would have seen had he done a proper check.

Registered electrical worker and a former vice-president of the New Zealand Electrical Inspectors Association, Stephen Pay, said in evidence that the green earth wire was wrapped in red electrical tape at the wall switch and was therefore being used as a switch wire rather than an earth wire.

Pay said this was not an unusual occurrence prior to a law change in the early 2000s.

The green wire which ought to have been an earth wire between the wall switch and the socket outlet installed by Burton was therefore connected not to the phase pin at the wall switch but to the earth pin of the socket outlet.

This meant that the wire was energised when the wall switch was turned on.

“The law was changed prohibiting that practise for reasons which are in stark relief in this case,” Judge Ruth said.

Pay also said there were clues that should have prompted Burton to carry out a closer inspection of the wall switch, which he later said he hadn’t done.

Pay said failure to do this was not in itself a breach, but mandatory testing, if carried out after the socket had been fitted and before the circuit was put back into service should have provided a warning.

“It is a reality that had the wall switch been removed and the red tape seen wrapped around the earth wire, the defendant would have immediately recognised that the wiring was not as he first thought it to be.

“That simple step, if taken, might well have prevented the tragedy that occurred on 19 March,” Judge Ruth said.

Pay also said there were gaps in Burton’s argument over the results shown in mandatory testing he was required to do, against those that investigators found.

WorkSafe NZ said Burton had either failed to carry out, or had failed to carry out properly the required earth continuity test, an earth fault loop impedance test, and a polarity test.

Judge Ruth said Burton’s evidence of his earth fault loop testing was of considerable significance in this case, given what it would have revealed if done properly.

The officer in charge of the investigation Paul Kauder, who is also a technical officer with the operations unit of WorkSafe New Zealand, Energy Safety, said Burton had also issued two certificates of compliance, the second one because of problems with his IT programme.

Judge Ruth noted the second certificate was not issued until 29 June 2020, possibly on legal advice.

Burton was also challenged on what he thought was a plausible reason for what had occurred if he wasn’t at fault.

Judge Ruth said a suggestion that some unknown person for unknown reasons might have reconfigured the wiring between the dates of 27 February and 19 March 2020, was “fanciful”, and not supported by any evidence.

Ultimately, Judge Ruth found him to be a “most unimpressive witness” who was confused over technical questions that the judge himself said he was able to understand as a layperson.

NZME has approached Burton for comment through his lawyer. Michael Vesty, who said Burton’s position would be outlined at sentencing.

* This story was first published by the New Zealand Herald.

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