Electricity is one of the most overlooked, yet deadly hazards of working on a farm. Safe Electricity urges farmers involved in spring planting to be particularly alert to the dangers of working near overhead power lines.
According to the National Safety Council, farmers are at an increased risk for electrocution and electric shock injury compared to non-farmers. In fact, 3.6 percent of youth under the age of 20 who work and/or live around farms are killed each year from electrocution.
Abide by basic safety rules
By following a few safety rules, these tragic accidents can be prevented. The first rule: maintain a minimum 10-foot clearance from power lines.
“The minimum 10-foot distance is a 360-degree rule – below, to the side, and above lines,” says Jay Solomon, University of Illinois Extension Engineering Educator. “Many farm electrical accidents involving power lines happen when loading or preparing to transport equipment to fields or while performing maintenance or repairs on farm machinery near lines. It can be difficult to estimate distance, and sometimes a power line is closer than it looks. A spotter or someone with a broader view can help.”
The most common source of electric shocks come from operating machinery such as large tractors with front loaders, portable grain augers, fold-up cultivators, moving grain elevators, and any equipment with an antenna. Handling long items such as irrigation pipe, ladders, and rods also pose the risk of contact with power lines. Getting too close to a power line while working is dangerous because electricity can arc – or “jump” – to conducting materials or objects.
Be aware of increased height when loading and transporting tractors on trailer beds. Many tractors are now equipped with radios and communications systems that have very tall antennas extending from the cab that could make contact with power lines. Avoid raising the arms of planters, cultivators, or truck beds near power lines, and never attempt to raise or move a power line to clear a path.
Remember, non-metallic materials such as lumber, tree limbs, tires, ropes, and hay will conduct electricity depending on dampness, dust, and dirt contamination. Do not try to clear storm-damage debris and limbs near power lines or fallen lines.
Overhead electric wires aren't the only electrical contact that can result in a serious incident. Pole guy wires, used to stabilize utility poles, are grounded. However, when one of the guy wires is broken it can cause an electric current disruption. This can make those neutral wires anything but harmless. If you hit a guy wire and break it, call your electric cooperative to fix it. Don't do it yourself. When dealing with electrical poles and wires, always call your electric cooperative for assistance and expertise.
Even the best laid plans often go awry and Safe Electricity wants farm workers to be prepared if their equipment does come in contact with power lines. “It’s almost always best to stay in the cab and call for help,” Solomon said. “If the power line is energized and you step outside, your body becomes the path to the ground and electrocution is the result. Even if a line has landed on the ground, there is still potential for the area to be energized. Warn others who may be nearby to stay away and wait until your electric cooperative line crew arrives to make sure power to the line is cut off.”
If you must leave your tractor cab
Solomon does provide solutions for leaving the cab if necessary, as in the case of fire or electrical fire.
“In that scenario, the proper action is to jump – not step – with both feet hitting the ground at the same time,” Solomon said. “Do not allow any part of your body to touch the equipment and the ground at the same time. Hop to safety, keeping both feet together as you leave the area.”
Once you get away from the equipment, never attempt to get back on or even touch the equipment. Many electrocutions occur when operators try to return to the equipment before the power has been shut off.
Other safety precautions
If you have hired help or your kids work for you, make sure they are educated on these precautions. Danger areas need to be thoroughly identified and labeled. Call your electric cooperative to measure line height – don’t attempt this yourself. Designate preplanned routes that avoid hazard area and stick to them.
If it’s feasible, consider moving or burying power lines around buildings or busy pathways where many farm activities take place. If planning a new outbuilding or farm structure, contact your electric cooperative for information on minimum safe clearances from overhead and underground power lines. And if you plan to dig beyond normal tilling, contact Iowa One Call
at 800/292-8989 at least 48 hours in advance to mark underground utilities first.