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                        3 min read

                        Overhead power lines - the silent killer

                        Overhead power lines - the silent killer

                        When I was a kid the government ran a campaign for many years called ‘Look up and live’. For a youngster it was a confronting TV commercial because it focused on young people who’d lost their Dad because of electrocution at work.

                        Too many people are killed and injured each year as a result of plant coming into contact with overhead or underground power lines. According to a study by RMIT, in the 10 years to 2014, 97 crane operators were electrocuted at work.

                        Failure to create and maintain a safe system of work is one of the key reasons that many fatal or near fatal incidents occur when working around powerlines. It’s critical to follow a structured and comprehensive process when approaching any task requiring plant & equipment to be operated in the vicinity of powerlines.

                        State-based safety regulators and regional energy suppliers are a good sources of guidance material relating to the operation plant in the vicinity of powerlines. Most of this guidance stresses the need to understand and implement a hierarchy of control to manage the risk of plant and equipment contacting powerlines.

                        By following the hierarchy of controls, reliance on administrative controls can be reduced. In many cases however, administrative controls (signage, procedures and vigilance) are the main control type used when working around powerlines.

                        NOTE: Tiger tails on power lines are a visual reminder only and do not allow you to work any closer.

                        In the table below, I’ve included some more detailed information about the application of the hierarchy of controls which is crucial when working in the vicinity of powerlines.

                        Having reviewed the guidance provided by State based regulators and all major electricity distributors there appears to be a consistent approach to the application of the hierarchy of controls. The guidance contains the following key themes:

                        Quantify the hazard

                        1. Determine power line voltage

                        2. Question/challenge the need to work in the vicinity

                        3. 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

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

                        2. 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 hazard

                        1.Arrange for the energy network operator to isolate the power supply and de-energise the lines

                        Utilise Engineering Controls

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

                        2. 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

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

                        a. Highlighting presence of powerlines with signage, tiger tails, bunting etc

                        b. Using trained staff and observers, and implementing warning signals to ensure plant does not encroach on minimum distance requirements

                        c. Implementing and enforcing strict exclusion zones

                        d. 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

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


                        For more information about the hierarchy of controls, see our article Hierarchy of controls explained.


                        Below is a state-by-state list of electricity distributors and links to the relevant state-based guidance.

                        New South Wales



                        South Australia

                        Australian Capital Territory

                        Western Australia


                        Northern Territory

                        If you wish to discuss how to better manage plant and power line safety at your worksite with one of our highly qualified team, please contact us.


                        Disclaimer: This information is intended to provide general information on the subject matter. This is not intended as legal or expert advice for your specific situation. You should seek professional advice before acting or relying on the content of this information.

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