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Fines given for ignoring powerline safety advice, putting lives at risk

A labourer sustained burns to his hand and electrical exit wounds to his feet when he contacted overhead powerlines while erecting edge protection around a packing shed roof in 2018.

The labourer was working for a scaffolding company which also engaged an electrical contractor to repair under-warranty solar panels, installed by another company.

The court heard the businesses involved were attending to their safety duties by addressing the fall from height risk, however running roughly parallel to and above the roof edge were 11kV powerlines. The edge of the roof closest to the powerlines was within the legislated exclusion zone.

While installing the edge protection the labourer stood on the roof holding a 6.5 metre steel scaffold pole which contacted or came close to the powerlines. A shock pathway flowed from the powerline through the pole to the shed, causing burns to his hand and electrical exit wounds to his feet.

Neither the electrical contractor nor the scaffolding company considered the presence of high voltage powerlines. Powerlines are an electrical hazard which should be well-known to competent electrical contractors and scaffolders and both should’ve taken steps to eliminate the risk.

Each defendant was prosecuted for offences under the Electrical Safety Act 2002 The electrical contractor, a sole trader, was fined $30,000. The scaffolding company who employed the injured worker was fined $75,000.

In ordinary circumstances, the produce business would not bear responsibility, as third-party specialist contractors were engaged. However, in this case Energex had become aware a little over a year before the incident that a section of the packing shed roof was within the required exclusion zone from the powerlines. Energex placed temporary markers on the lines and gave the produce company safety advice in writing in 2017 stating:

  • do not access the shed roof or carry out any work on it
  • prevent anybody else accessing the roof
  • the mandatory exclusion zone for unauthorised persons was three metres from the electric line.

A diagram was provided showing the powerline was 2.4 metres above the shed and the business was advised the clearance would be corrected as part of Energex’s program to maintain statutory clearances.

This changed things relative to the produce business’s duties as it had received safety information which should have been passed on to contractors and others who were engaged to perform works on the shed roof.

The produce business was prosecuted and after an appeal process was fined $100,000.

The trial court described the duty, explaining why the produce business was in a risky situation:

“It is not to the point that qualified persons ought to have recognised the hazard themselves without the benefit of having received a warning, or that those contractors may be separately liable for their own inaction in not recognising the hazard… more than one person can concurrently have the same duty and … each person … must discharge the person’s duty to the extent to which the person has the capacity to influence and control the matter. …the defendant was in a position to influence the health and safety outcome – and it had low cost and reasonably practicable means at its disposal to do so.”

Contact with overhead or underground electric lines can have deadly consequences.

Exclusion zones are the minimum safe distance from live powerlines to reduce the risk of an electric shock. Working near powerlines can be fatal. Touching them or straying into the exclusion zone around them can result in a serious electric shock.

Five of the six electrical fatalities recorded in 2022-23 involved people coming into contact with overheard or underground powerlines. This prosecution highlights the need to continue raising awareness of the duties, hazards and risks posed when working near overhead or underground lines.

Further information

Read about Powerlines and electrical cables safety.