Electrical incidents in the rural industry have often involved contact between machinery or irrigation pipes with overhead powerlines.
Other causes of electrical incidents include general lack of electrical equipment maintenance and unauthorised electrical handy-work.
Apart from death and injury, electrical incidents have also caused significant property damag, for example, arcing or burning from electricity can damage or destroy vehicle frames, gearboxes, engines, axles and tyres.
Electrical safety in the rural industry can be managed by:
- meeting the requirements of Queensland's electrical safety laws
- using the practical advice outlined in the codes of practice
- applying a risk management approach to electrical safety.
Look up and live – look down and survive
Powerlines are located throughout Queensland. In some cases these powerlines carry very high voltages - up to 330 000 volts.
Electricity can also flow through objects which would commonly be regarded as poor conductors (e.g. trees or machinery). The chances of survival are low for anyone exposed to electricity from powerlines.
You don't need to come into direct contact with powerlines to receive an electric shock as electricity can 'jump' or arc across air gaps. All powerline voltages are lethal.
Powerlines are usually installed above ground, however, they may also be underground. To stay electrically safe always observe safe practices whenever you are near overhead powerlines and electrical equipment like transformers or carrying out activities such as excavating trenches or drilling holes.
There is a free powerline safety plan on the Look up and Live map.
Avoiding powerlines, poles and stay wires
Sometimes powerlines are difficult to see in the landscape. Locating them can be difficult even on bright sunny days and more so in low light, in rain, cloudy weather, or at dawn or dusk.
Most powerlines do not follow a direct line from the top of one pole to another. They sag between poles and can be as much as three or four metres below the cross-arms supporting them. This is where powerlines are most often accidentally contacted. Powerlines can also sway in the wind and sag as temperatures rise so what appears to be a safe working distance may later expose people or property to serious risks.
You should have a good practical understanding of the electrical safety laws and use safe work practices. The electrical safety codes of practice, such as the Electrical safety code of practice 2020 – Working near overhead and underground electric lines (PDF, 0.47 MB) and the Electrical safety code of practice 2020 – Electrical equipment rural industry (PDF, 0.65 MB), provide valuable practical advice on how to stay safe.
You need to determine the height and reach of all machinery and plant used near powerlines and consider the way it is used to identify hazardous situations. 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.
Power poles on rural properties may be owned by an electricity distributor or privately owned. Have someone with appropriate skills and knowledge, such as a licensed electrical contractor, periodically check privately-owned power poles and associated hardware such as cross-arms for structural deterioration due to rot or white ants. If you suspect other power poles on or near your property may be unsafe report them to the local electricity distributor.
You should also become familiar with the layout of the overhead electrical system on and near your property and how far away you need to keep from these powerlines. Also make sure that equipment operators and workers are suitably trained and competent to ensure they carry out activities around powerlines in a way that is electrically safe.
Before work starts:
- Complete a risk assessment and put in place suitable safety measures. Refer to the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2011 (PDF, 1.02 MB), the Electrical safety code of practice 2020 – Electrical equipment rural industry (PDF, 0.65 MB) and the Electrical safety code of practice 2020 – Working near overhead and underground electric lines (PDF, 0.47 MB).
- 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 (e.g. Are they sagging due to storm damage or have they been damaged by a vehicle?)
- Equipment operators and workers should be made aware of the clearances that must be maintained (e.g. from powerlines, poles and stay wires).
- Use highly visible ground markers to highlight overhead powerlines. Contact your electricity distributor for advice on visual markers.
- Establish aircraft landing strips and approach paths away from powerlines.
- 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.
Dealing with fallen powerlines
Treat all fallen powerlines as 'live' and a potential killer.
There is no indicator of whether a fallen powerline is live. In some cases there may be sparks or arcing and in other cases there may be no sign of danger.
Always keep well clear of powerlines, even if they are draped across a tree or fence and contact your electricity distributor immediately so an emergency repair crew can be sent.
Alert others to prevent them from approaching the fallen powerlines. Working or investigating a power outage around the property at night can be hazardous due to unseen fallen powerlines.
If a machine or vehicle comes into contact with powerlines follow the steps below:
- Stay calm and remain in the machine or vehicle until the power has been switched off.
- Do not attempt to get out of the vehicle as you risk being electrocuted by creating a shock path through your body to the ground as you exit.
- If another danger occurs such as fire and you must jump clear, keep both feet together, while landing upright, to prevent getting an electric shock from the energised ground around the machine. Then, still keeping both feet together, hop well clear of the machine.
- Call '000' immediately to report powerlines are down and contact your electricity distributor to have the power switched off.
- Never approach, or allow others to approach, someone or something that has come into contact with powerlines, transformers and other electrical equipment; as it likely that they will be electrocuted.
Workers, machinery and other plant must be kept a safe distance from overhead powerlines at all times. The exclusion zones under Queensland's electrical safety laws are effectively the minimum safe distances to be maintained from powerlines in all directions.
Although the following are the minimum safe distances, the best way to stay electrically safe is to maintain the greatest possible distance from powerlines.
|Power line voltage |
(1 kV = 1000 volts)
|Up to 132 kV|
Low voltage and high voltage powerlines usually on poles
|Between 132 kV and 330 kV||High voltage powerlines usually on poles and towers||6 metres|
|Over 330 kV||High voltage powerlines usually on towers||8 metres|
*Note: The table above does not fully detail exclusion zone dimensions and other requirements. For further information refer to Part 5 of the Electrical Safety Regulation 2013 and the Electrical safety code of practice 2020 - Working near overhead and underground electric lines (PDF, 0.47 MB).
The following practices can reduce electrical risk around powerlines in the rural industry.
- Always aim to stay further away from powerlines than the distance stipulated by the exclusion zone clearances – increasing distance from powerlines is a simple way to minimise electrical risk.
- Work away from powerlines – not towards them.
- Use maps or diagrams to show the location of powerlines and safe operating areas and keep these safety aids up-to-date.
- Always lower machinery before relocating it.
- Carry out maintenance and check the height and reach of machinery well away from powerlines.
- Don't locate machinery or equipment under 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.
- When working with metal pipes near powerlines, don't lift them at right angles to the ground. 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.
- Regularly monitor work activities around powerlines to ensure they are safe or whenever there is a change such as a new operator, machine or work activity. New operators need to be informed of your safety arrangements. New machinery could be bigger (e.g. longer spray booms, which needs to be factored in to your safe distances).
Farmsafe Queensland has prepared a range of material specifically for rural industry, including an electrical hazard checklist which provides practical advice and a template to help carry out a risk assessment. The Managing farm safety – Risk management – Electrical hazard checklist is available from Farmsafe Queensland by phoning 1300 737 470.
Underground electrical cables
Underground electrical cables are particularly hazardous as they are hidden from view. Under Part 5 of the Electrical Safety Regulation 2013, workers, machinery and other plant must be kept a safe distance from underground electrical cables at all times. Guidance is provided in the Electrical safety code of practice 2020 - Working near overhead and underground electric lines (PDF, 0.47 MB).
In addition, under Chapter 6, Part 6.3, Division 3 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011, a person conducting a business or undertaking must take certain steps to find out if underground essential services (including electrical cables) are at or near where excavation work is to be done.
Before excavation work starts:
- Obtain current information about any underground essential services at or near where excavation work is to be done. For example by using a service such as Dial Before You Dig* by dialling 1100. They provide advice about underground services including electrical cables.
Even if an information service such as Dial Before You Dig has been used, care must still be exercised as not all underground electrical cables are identified by such a service (e.g. privately owned underground electrical conductors).
- Use advice about underground electrical cables such as location, type, depth and work restrictions to develop safe work practices.
- Make sure advice about underground electrical cables is given to any person engaged to carry out the excavation work.
During excavation work:
- Watch out for warning signs of underground electrical cables such as orange tape, conduits, sand or other markers.
Due to changes in ground levels underground electrical conduits may not be at the correct depth.
If an underground electrical cable is encountered don't move it – contact your electricity distributor immediately and follow their advice.
Electrical equipment in rural industry
The Electrical safety code of practice 2020 – Electrical equipment rural industry (PDF, 0.65 MB) gives practical advice about how owners and operators of rural businesses can manage risks associated with electrical farm equipment such as power tools, motors, pumps, fixed electrical installations and the activity of electric welding.
The Electrical safety code of practice 2020 – Electrical equipment rural industry (PDF, 0.65 MB) provides the following ways of managing electrical safety duties:
- Examine all specified electrical equipment in the workplace annually. Assess all electrical equipment, noting defects and arrange for them to be fixed.
- Assess whether there is electrical risk, including stated electrical risk factors.
- Manage the stated electrical risk factors by:
- assessing the risks and implementing measures to control the risks
- using safety switch protection or regular testing and inspection
- visually checking all electrical equipment prior to use or connection
- continuing to monitor work areas and electrical equipment on an ongoing basis.
Stated electrical risk factor – a definition
Almost all rural workplaces will have stated electrical risk factors in one or more locations. For example, if you use electrical equipment in a wet environment, or if you cause harsh wear on electrical equipment in your workplace, a stated electrical risk factor will exist.
Stated electrical risk factor means any of the following:
- use of plug-in electrical equipment in an unroofed area or wet area (e.g. a hose down area)
- use of personally supported electrical equipment (handheld or carried) if the electricity supply cord is subject to flexing while the equipment is being used
- use of plug-in electrical equipment that is exposed to environmental factors that cause abnormal wear or deterioration
- electric light fittings located within arm's reach (2.5 metres upwards, or 1.25 metres sideways or downwards) and connected to a circuit rated at not more than 20 amps of current.
Examples of environmental factors that subject equipment to abnormal wear or deterioration include:
- corrosive or other damaging dusts (e.g. metal dust)
- corrosive chemicals in the air.
If specified electrical equipment is to be used for work where a stated electrical risk factor exists, the equipment must be connected to a safety switch, or be inspected and tested at least annually by a competent person. A competent person means a person who has acquired, through training, qualifications, experience or a combination of these, the knowledge and skill enabling the person to inspect and test electrical equipment.
Electrical risk must be managed by using safety measures identified by a documented risk assessment process. Refer to the Electrical safety code of practice 2020 – Electrical equipment rural industry (PDF, 0.65 MB).
Specified electrical equipment – a definition
In rural industry work, specified electrical equipment means any of the following equipment:
- a cord extension set with a current rating of not more than 20 amps
- a portable outlet device with a current rating of not more than 20 amps
- electrical equipment, other than a portable safety switch, that:
- has a current rating of not more than 20 amps
- is connected by a flexible cord and plug to low voltage supply.
Initially, you should visually examine electrical equipment to see whether power points, light fittings, switchboards, wiring and other electrical equipment appear to be undamaged and in operational condition. You should carry out this visual examination once every 12 months .
If you find any problems, or suspect something is not electrically safe, a licensed electrical contractor or an employee who is a licensed electrical person are the only people permitted to fix problems involving electrical work.
You should pay particular attention to the following to see if there is any damage, or if the equipment has other readily apparent problems:
- electrical cables and conduits
- overhead powerlines and power poles
- electrical accessories (e.g. power points)
- other electrical equipment (e.g. light fittings, pumps or electrical cabinets)
- handheld electrical equipment (e.g. electric drills or circular saws) – these devices must be visually examined prior to connection to electricity.
Electric welding equipment must be visually inspected prior to use. To manage additional risks associated with electric welding, use the following measures.
- Electrode holders should be fully insulated – they should also be maintained to ensure a good electrical connection between the electrode and the holder.
- There should be a safe system of work in place for the performance of electric welding work. The safe system of work should address the electrical safety risks of electric welding.
- Personal protective equipment including protective clothing, gloves, footwear and eye protection must be used.
- In high risk situations such as in an enclosed space, use a safe system of work. This would use safety measures such as a voltage reduction unit to lower the open circuit voltage of the welder to a safe level or a safety observer to watch over you and turn off the power when you change an electrode.
For more information please refer to the Welding processes code of practice 2013 (PDF, 0.88 MB).
An area is considered hazardous if an explosive atmosphere is or may be present. Typical examples of hazardous areas are:
- petrol dispensing or decanting areas
- liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) storage and decanting areas
- areas in or adjacent to gas storage facilities
- ripening rooms
- grain silos (flammable dusts)
- those where flammable products are stored, used, or decanted.
The best and simplest way of making sure a hazardous area is electrically safe is not to have any electrical equipment in it.
Never run an extension lead to a hazardous area to use plug-in electrical equipment. Even extra low voltage equipment such as battery drills should not be used in a hazardous area, because they can create electrical sparks and arcs which may initiate an explosion.
If it is essential to have electrical equipment in a hazardous area, you must ensure that:
- the hazardous area is classified by an expert person, establishing the type of hazardous atmosphere and its risk level, in accordance with recognised standards
- a licensed electrical person ensures that the electrical installation and equipment are suitable for the classification.
A safety switch is only useful in protecting people if it operates instantly when an electrical fault occurs. Failure to test the switch regularly means you don't know if it still works or not. So the best course of action is to ensure you test your safety switch every three months.
Test if your safety switch is operating correctly by pushing the 'test' or 'T' button on the unit.
Teach children on rural properties about the danger of electricity.
Education helps prevent accidents and ensures electricity does not represent a danger to children. They should be taught that electrical appliances, power points, cords and other electrical equipment are not play things.
Those who care for children should familiarise themselves with all electrical safety precautions:
- supervise children closely when they are near electrical appliances or equipment
- find a secure place to store portable electrical appliances used in bathrooms and laundries
- ensure power points are covered when young children are around
- recreational activities such as climbing trees and flying kites or model planes can also become a risk around powerlines and other electrical equipment such as transformers mounted on power poles.