A man connected a rented submersible sump pump with the extension cords he’d rented to complete the job of draining a pond on his property. When he waded into the water to move the pump, one of the cords shorted. Unbeknownst to him, the cord had been improperly repaired at the rental store. The man was electrocuted; his distraught wife found his body only after it was too late to save him.

The above incident is an extreme case, but I do occasionally investigate accidents that involve rented equipment or accessories. Don’t get me wrong — I do not have any complaints against well-run equipmentrental companies. In fact, I believe there is a strong need for them.

They provide a valuable service to small-scale contractors who would otherwise have to buy expensive equipment and accessories that they only need for the current job. They don’t have to forecast when they’ll need that type of equipment again, and they can expense out the rental cost and avoid compromising their business’s credit rating.

Rental companies also give private renters, including weekend warriors attacking their “honeydo” lists, timely access to equipment they need for household projects. The renters don’t need to store, maintain, or repair the specialty equipment.

The rental companies benefit, too. They can depreciate the assets they are renting out on their taxes, and they can continue to receive income from the assets after their depreciation lifetimes have passed.

However, an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) survey of rental companies determined that some rental equipment did not meet ANSI standards or was in disrepair. The survey also found some rental companies weren’t training renters in safe operation of the equipment.

Anyone renting equipment should expect to get proper training, including an owners’ manual to review during and after the training. When I have rented equipment in recent years, not only have I been trained, but the rental store required that I demonstrate my proficiency, and I had to sign that I received the training. It should also go without saying that the renter should expect the equipment to be well maintained and properly repaired.

These basics are not just marks of a good rental business, they are requirements enforced by the courts. For instance, in the extension-cord case above, where the same repaired cord used in an industrial setting would have triggered an OSHA citation, the jury found in the wife’s favor to the tune of a very large judgment.

In another incident recently highlighted in this magazine, a man operating a rented lawn mower sustained an eye injury. (See “From the Safety Files: Poor design contributes to an eye injury,” July 9, 2009.) My investigation found that in addition to poor equipment design, perfunctory training, the absence of an owners’ manual, the lack of safety equipment, and poor equipment maintenance all contributed to the injury, and to the rental company’s trip to court.

Lanny Berke is a registered professional engineer and Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at lannyb@comcast.net.

Edited by Jessica Shapiro