Two years had passed without a fatal accident across Ergon Energy’s vast high-voltage network until one morning in February this year as a farmer manoeuvred his spray rig in a sorghum field outside Dalby.
The man’s death after his equipment struck overhead lines was followed within eight weeks by an incident at Carmila, south of Mackay, when a crop-dusting helicopter clipped a wire and crashed.
But the fatalities were just the tip of the iceberg in a six-month period that also saw six serious incidents resulting in people being hospitalised, bringing home the importance of Ergon Energy’s “Look Up and Live” message to industry.
It’s a problem Ergon senior community health and safety advisor Glen Cook has been working hard to tackle with initiatives including tool box talks for industry and a presence at events such as NQ Field Days.
Mr Cook said Ergon saw more than 500 incidents each year involving accidental contact with powerlines and pillars – including traffic crashes as well as many workplace incidents across the agricultural, construction and road transport sectors.
“We are seeing a bit of a reduction overall as we are getting out there across regional Queensland to make people more aware,” he said.
However he said there had been a recent spike in serious incidents.
“Like in Mareeba (in April) when a concrete pump ran into some 22000-volt powerlines – it blew 16 tyres on the vehicle and the guys received shock, but no serious injuries thank goodness,” he said.
In another case a truck driver suffered burns and lost three toes after stopping near Biloela and climbing on top of his cattle crates, contacting a 22,000 volt line, and a builder was seriously injured near Kogan when edge protection for roofing struck a powerline above a home.
“We’ve had a few ones where it was complacency and people not being aware. And for the cattle truck driver it was dark and he just pulled up in the wrong spot,” Mr Cook said.
Mr Cook said the tragedy in Dalby came about because the farm worker exited his vehicle after striking the 11,000-volt powerline rather than staying put.
“It is the absolute last resort for you to get out of the vehicle – the only reason you should get out is if it is on fire or you have noxious gases coming in the cabin and are going to die of asphyxiation,” he said.
“Then you can make it safer if you jump from the vehicle with your feet together – not touching the vehicle and the ground at the same time – and you can ‘bunny hop’ away with your feet together.
“Just get 10m away and the surface voltage will be reduced. Or you can shuffle away – just a small shuffle.”
It is the sort of life-saving information Ergon is trying to spread by meeting face to face with as many people as possible, particularly in the construction, agricultural and transport industries, as well as through its website and other safety material.
“What happens when a powerline falls to the ground or machinery hits the powerline is the electricity wants to get back to the power source and will go the quickest way to do that,” Mr Cook said.
“So there’s an invisible radiating field going through the earth looking to get back to its power source.”
Mr Cook uses the metaphor of a rock thrown into a pond to describe “ripples” radiating out from the contact point, with the voltage levels reducing further out as you go.
“If you try to get out of the machine and touch the ground and machine at the same time 11000 volts will go through your body,” he said.
“If you happen to jump clear of the machine and land on the ground but have feet apart – one on a 9000-volt (‘ripple’ line) and one on 8000, you are a better path (than the ground).”
Mr Cook also stressed the need to have a spotter watching when operating large pieces of machinery such as harvesters and cranes near high-voltage lines.
“Every powerline in Queensland has a 3m exclusion zone around it – that’s the law you must comply with and if using machinery it is also required by law to have a spotter or safety observer watching you to make sure that you don’t come within that 3m.” he said.
“There would be more than one case a day of people contacting powerlines because they are not using a spotter. Not one of those incidents occur when there is a safety observer on site.”
Mr Cook has worked in the electricity industry for 25 years after beginning his career as an electrician for FNQEB.
Most of that times was spent ‘on the tools’ in areas including Mossman, Cairns, Beaudesert, Brisbane and the Torres Strait, before moving into management roles, he said.
His career shifted direction after an incident five years ago when he investigated the electrocution of a painter who put a roller into 11,000-volt lines at Hervey Bay.
“I’ve been involved in a number of fatalities – I’ve smelt the burnt flesh, the burnt hair – I’ve seen the aftermath and it isn’t pretty,” Mr Cook said.
When the opportunity arose to move into a safety role after the Hervey Bay incident he ran with it and now leads a team of community health and safety advisors who provide advice on working near overhead and underground powerlines.
“It was something I was already passionate about, I do enjoy it and I know anyone I’ve been involved with is never going to hit a powerline,” Mr Cook said.
Mr Cook said Ergon Energy had a community electrical safety awareness plan, written by his team.
“The incidents drive which industries we go and talk to,” he said.
State-owned power companies Ergon and Energex will become Energy Queensland when they merge at the end of the month