Managing the risk of working near powerlines


Managing the risk of working near powerlines…

Paul Dean | Founder / Director


It’s been years since the ‘Look up and Live’ geospatial map was rolled out — yet many people are killed or injured each year as a result of plant or equipment coming into contact with overhead or underground powerlines.

Recently, WorkSafe Victoria had to urge employers who operate mobile machinery near overhead powerlines to put safety first following a spate of electric shock incidents and near misses.

An electric shock can occur even without contact with overhead electric lines. Even approaching close to conductors can cause a ‘flashover’ to occur – particularly in high-voltage lines. Ultimately, anytime a person, or piece of equipment, could come closer than relevant approach distances, there is a risk.

A key reason for powerline related incidents is the failure to put in place and maintain a safe system of work. Whether lines are carrying 400,000 volts or 230 – contact with energised overhead or underground electric lines can be fatal. 

Therefore, it’s critical to follow a structured and detailed process when approaching any task that requires the use of plant and equipment near powerlines.

It is your responsibility under WHS law, in so far as is reasonably practicable, to ensure that workers and other people are not exposed to health and safety risks – including the risk of working near overhead and underground powerlines.

Each state and territory provides good sources of guidance. The majority of this advice highlights the need to understand and implement a hierarchy of control to manage risks, and can be summarised in the following table:

Quantify the hazard

Determine power line voltage

Question/challenge the need to work in the vicinity

Identify the owner of the power lines (often a regional energy distributor) and consult their guidance information. In some instances this guidance information requires contact with the distributor

Assess the risk

Conduct a comprehensive risk assessment of site, conditions, task, machinery to be used and loads to be shifted

The results of this assessment must then be used to eliminate or minimise risks posed by suitability or otherwise of machinery, conductive loads, site or other environmental conditions – using a combination of control types as listed below

Eliminate and/or Isolate the hazardArrange for the energy network operator to isolate the power supply and de-energise the lines
Utilise Engineering Controls

Use a machine that cannot encroach upon the minimum approach distances for the type of power lines involved

Utilise interlocks or other forms of machine control adjustment and limitation so that the machine cannot be operated in a way that will encroach minimum approach distances

Administrative Controls & PPE

Develop and utilise a comprehensive safe work methods statement for the task, which will often or always include:

      1. Highlighting presence of powerlines with signage, tiger tails, bunting etc
      2. Using trained staff and observers, and implementing warning signals to ensure plant does not encroach on minimum distance requirements
      3. Implementing and enforcing strict exclusion zones
      4. Ensure staff are trained in emergency procedures in the event of a machine becoming energised at any point during commissioning, decommissioning or during the task

Utilise (as set out in SWMS, and depending upon voltage, conditions and SWMS contents) PPE such as insulated gloves, mats and so on

Experts on hand

To discuss how to better manage plant and power line safety at your worksite with our expert team, please contact us.

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