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Teenager electrocuted by overhead powerlines on rural property

In September 2018, a teenager was killed when a metal irrigation pipe he was lifting with a friend made contact with an overhead 22,000 volt powerline on a rural property. Investigations are continuing.

Preventing a similar incident

Electrical incidents in the rural industry often involve contact between machinery and equipment with overhead powerlines. Powerlines in Queensland can carry very high voltages - up to 330,000 volts. You don't even have to come into contact with them to receive an electric shock as electricity can arc (jump) across gaps.

There are risks for people when the equipment or vehicle they are using comes too close, or into contact with the power lines, or they are moving or rearranging long metal objects (such as irrigation pipes) under power lines.

Recreational activities can also be a risk around powerlines and other electrical equipment such as transformers and power poles.

Powerlines can be difficult to see, even on bright sunny days, but more so in poor light such as rain or cloudy weather or at dawn or dusk. Most powerlines sag between poles by as much as three to four metres, and this is where contact with powerlines often occurs.

PCBUs should be familiar with the layout of the overhead electrical system on and near their property and understand how far away people must keep from these powerlines. They should ensure that all workers and other people on their property also know where the powerlines are. All workers must be trained to carry out activities around powerlines safely.

The following practices can reduce electrical risk around powerlines:

  • Make sure no-one and no equipment enters the exclusion zone for the powerline – 6m for powerlines carrying up to 330 kV and 3m for up to 132 kV.
  • Make maps or diagrams available to show the location of powerlines and safe operating areas around them.
  • Make sure 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.
  • Use highly visible ground markers to highlight overhead powerlines. Contact your electricity distributor for advice on visual markers.
  • Be aware that powerlines can move and vary in height due to factors such as wind and temperature and adjust work practices accordingly (for example, are they sagging due to storm damage or have they been damaged by a vehicle?)
  • Don't keep machinery or equipment under powerlines.
  • Don't store or lift metal irrigation pipes near powerlines. Irrigation pipes are made in long lengths that easily cover the distance between the ground and overhead powerlines. Because of this, store irrigation pipes well away from powerlines.
  • Always use a safety observer whenever there is a risk of coming close to power line exclusion zones – use a safety observer in each work team.
  • Keep all crops and vegetation well clear of power poles and stay wires. Contact your electricity supplier if you suspect that vegetation near powerlines or poles could expose people or property to electrical risk.
  • Ensure no damage occurs to poles, stay wires and overhead powerlines when burning off.
  • Ensure you have clearly defined emergency procedures and ensure all workers are familiar with them in the event of contact with electricity.

Statistics

Each year there are around 325 accepted workers' compensation claims involving a worker receiving an electric shock. One of these is fatal and one in ten involve an injury which requires five of more days off work. Since 2013, we have issued 382 notices for issues associated with electricity.

Since 2015, there have been 32 serious electrical incidents. Eight of these occurred on a rural property and all involved machinery or other equipment contacting overhead powerlines.

Prosecutions and compliance

Since 2008, six companies have been prosecuted for incidents involving overhead powerlines.

In 2015 a company was fined $35,000 after two fruit pickers received serious burns from an overhead powerline. The fruit trees were located directly under a high voltage uninsulated power line. One worker was standing on a platform and one was at the rear washing the fruit. The worker standing on the platform made contact with the power line with the picking stick. The trailer served as a shock pathway and both workers both received electrical burns.

In 2017, a company was fined $75,000 after a contractor received an electric shock while working near an overhead powerline. He was installing a galvanised handrail onto a scaffold which came close to the powerline, resulting in an arc flash that energised the hand rail. He received severe burns and other significant injuries.

More Information

Support for people affected by a serious workplace incident

Have you been affected by a workplace fatality, illness or serious injury? For advice and support, visit our Facebook page or email ohs.coronialliaison@oir.qld.gov.au.