Health and Safety
Electrocution caused by machinery connection with
powerlines remains a major risk.
PHOTO: Paul Jones
Tall machinery and powerlines can be a lethal combination.
There are rarely second chances if you make contact with high-voltage electricity. Touching overhead powerlines with farm machinery is usually either fatal or causes serious, permanent injury.
This hazard remains a major safety risk on Australian farms and has reinforced the wheatbelt’s reputation as one of agriculture’s most dangerous workplaces.
A recent report commissioned by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) and supported by the GRDC, Adoption of Health and Safety Change on Australian Farms and Fishing Enterprises*, singled out the top 10 interventions likely to save lives, including “relocation of electrical powerlines in areas of high-traffic flow”.
Report co-author Associate Professor Anthony Lower, director of the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety (ACAHS), says while investment in farm safety programs has seen the Australian farm death toll drop by 60 per cent over the past 20 years, electrocution caused by machinery touching powerlines remains a major risk.
The report referred to a review of on-farm deaths recorded in the National Coronial Information System between 2001 and 2004, which concluded that seven out of eight fatalities involving powerlines could have been avoided if the powerlines had been relocated away from high-traffic areas.
“By our estimates many more deaths can be prevented by adopting solutions which we know, from evidence, work,” Associate Professor Lower says in his report.
“The key to improving health and safety is offering farmers options that work and research shows engineering-based solutions are effective.”
The study report also emphasised education: “We get a good uptake if people understand the reasons and logic behind a solution,” Associate Professor Lower says.
Awareness and education goals are driving a new safety initiative launched by Energy Safe Victoria (ESV). The ‘Look up and Live’ campaign stresses the hazards associated with powerlines – a danger intensified by the fact that many powerlines in rural areas are thin, single conduits with poles that are often hundreds of metres apart and difficult to see. These single-wire earth return (SWER) lines carry 12,700 volts and any contact can be deadly.
The campaign reminds growers that trucks and other farm machinery do not have to touch powerlines for electrocution and injury to occur. In some circumstances, electricity can jump gaps, which means just being too close to powerlines is dangerous. Regulations prohibit working within three metres of powerlines without a special permit.
The ‘Look up and Live’ campaign reports seven deaths in Victoria alone during the past six years as a result of accidental contact with powerlines, plus many more injuries. The fatalities include a double tragedy involving a father and son in the Victorian Wimmera, who were electrocuted in 2011 when a windmill being carried in a front-end loader clipped live powerlines.
ESV’s director of energy safety, Paul Fearon, says all growers, rural workers and truck drivers need to be aware of the location of overhead powerlines before starting work. “Our message is simple – look up and live,” he says.
“Everyone working in the vicinity of powerlines should carry out a safety check and take the time to identify powerlines in their immediate area. It only takes a few seconds but it could save your life.”
Mr Fearon also warns that powerlines move in the wind and can sag with temperature and electrical load during summer. “While you might have adequate clearance at 9am, a powerline could drop by more than a metre throughout the day and a task that’s routine in the morning could have fatal consequences by late afternoon,” he says.
Associate Professor Anthony Lower
02 6752 8210
02 6752 8210
Energy Safe Victoria
The Adoption of Health and Safety Change on Australian Farms and Fishing Enterprises report is available at www.rirdc.gov.au
Copies of the ‘Look Up and Live’ brochure, DVD and stickers, and the ‘No Go Zone’ rules and regulations applicable to Victorian growers, are available from www.esv.vic.gov.au
* The report was backed by the GRDC through the Collaborative Partnership for Farming and Fishing Health and Safety – a joint project between the RIRDC, the GRDC, the Sugar RDC, the Cotton RDC, the Fisheries RDC and the Department of Health and Ageing.
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