In October 2017 two workers on a rural property in the Western Downs region of Queensland received serious burns from an electric shock. The workers were relocating a grain auger when it came into contact with a 12.7kV single wire earth return (SWER) overhead powerline.
Both workers were transported to Brisbane for surgery and one was placed into an induced coma. Investigations into how the plant came into contact with the SWER line are continuing.
Preventing a similar incident
Electrical incidents in the rural industry often involve contact between machinery or irrigation pipes and overhead powerlines. Powerlines in Queensland can carry very high voltages – up to 330,000 volts, so you don't have to actually come into contact with the powerlines to receive a shock as electricity can arc across gaps.
Powerlines can be difficult to see, even on bright sunny days, but more so in poor light such as rainy or cloudy weather or at dawn and dusk. Most powerlines sag between poles by as much as three to four metres, and this is when contact with powerlines often occurs.
A person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must ensure their business or undertaking is electrically safe. This includes all work involving contact with, or being conducted near to exposed live parts.
If you are a PCBU, you should make yourself familiar with the layout of the overhead electrical system on and near your property. Importantly, you must know how far away you need to keep away from these powerlines and have safe systems of work in place to ensure nothing and no-one strays into these exclusion zones. Make sure that all equipment operators - workers and contractors - are aware of these systems and are trained and competent to be safe around powerlines.
Before work starts:
- Complete a risk assessment and put suitable safety measures in place. Refer to the Electrical safety code of practice 2010 – Electrical equipment rural industry (PDF, 0.65 MB) and the Electrical safety code of practice 2010 – Working near overhead and underground electric lines (PDF, 0.47 MB).
- Where possible, plan for work to be performed away from overhead powerlines.
- Keep all crops and vegetation well clear of power poles and stay wires. Contact your electricity distributor if you suspect that vegetation near powerlines or poles could expose people or property to electrical risk.
- Use highly visible ground markers to highlight overhead powerlines. Contact your electricity distributor for advice on visual markers.
- Equipment operators and workers should be made aware of the clearances that must be maintained (e.g. from powerlines, poles and stay wires).
- Ensure no damage occurs to poles, stay wires and overhead powerlines when burning off.
- Ensure equipment operators and workers are aware of overhead and underground power line locations, specified exclusion zones and the height and reach of equipment being used.
- Be aware that the layout of powerlines may be altered by your electricity distributor.
- Be aware that powerlines can move and vary in height due to factors such as wind and temperature and adjust work practices accordingly. They could also be sagging due to storm damage or because a vehicle has hit one of the poles.
- Ensure you have clear electrical emergency procedures that all workers are familiar with.
To ensure all risks are considered and managed, PCBU's should also determine the height and reach of machinery and plant and the way they are going to be used near powerlines. Plant and machinery such as irrigation pipes, grain augers, elevators, grain silos, cranes and excavators all have the potential to contact powerlines. Always lower an auger or other machinery before moving it, and do not store plant, machinery or produce such as hay, under powerlines.
Since 2014, we have been notified of six serious incidents in the agriculture industry involving contact with overhead powerlines. They included two deaths, and burns that required hospital treatment. Two prohibition notices and an electrical safety protection notice were issued relating to these incidents.
In the same period, 23 notices were issued across all industries as a result of plant contacting overhead powerlines, including nine electrical protection safety notices, nine improvement notices and five prohibition notices.
Over the last 12 months, Energy Queensland reported 82 incidents in the agriculture industry involving contact with overhead powerlines.
Prosecutions and compliance
Since 2008, six companies have been prosecuted for incidents involving overhead powerlines.
In 2009 a company was fined $80,000 after a plant operator was killed when a concrete boom he was operating came into contact with overhead powerlines.
In 2012 a company was fined $90,000 when a mobile crane operator was killed when the crane came into contact with high voltage overhead conductors.
In 2013, a company was fined $40,000 after a crane operator sustained an electrical shock when the crane struck overhead powerlines.
Again in 2013, a company was fined $40,000 after a dogger received an electric shock. A crane was being used to re-locate a silo when it hit 33kv high voltage overhead powerlines, while the dogger was holding onto it.
In 2016 a company was fined $125,000 after a worker was electrocuted while working on an advertising billboard in an elevating work platform. The worker was using a 6.5 metre pole which came into contact with an overhead powerline.
In 2017, a company was fined $75,000 after a sub-contractor received an electric shock while working near a SWER powerline on a rural property. The worker was installing a galvanised handrail onto a scaffold which came within 30cm of the SWER powerline, resulting in an arc flash that energised the hand rail. The worker received severe burns and other significant injuries from the high-voltage current flowing through his body.
Two electrical safety infringement notices were introduced on 30 June 2017. Our inspectors can now issue on the spot penalties of up to $3000 to businesses which fail to identify the risks and implement appropriate controls around powerlines.
Electrical safety code of practice 2010 – Electrical equipment rural industry (PDF, 0.65 MB)
Electrical safety code of practice 2010 – Working near overhead and underground electric lines (PDF, 0.47 MB)
How to manage work health and safety risks Code of Practice 2011 (PDF, 1.02 MB)
Electrical Safety in the Rural Industry
Working near overhead and underground powerlines