The risks posed to workers by electricity are all too real, and in the case of working near powerlines, safety regulators are looking closely at how organisations are managing the risk of electrocution.
Recently, WorkSafe Victoria issued a safety alert around mobile machinery being used near overhead powerlines following a number of electric shock incidents and near misses. In the alert, employers are reminded that “It doesn’t matter whether you are a large employer in construction, transport or a sole farm operator, all duty-holders should review their systems of work when operating near overhead powerlines.”
The issue impacts all businesses across Australia, and not just in relation to the use of mobile machinery. The risks arise when any worker is near any energised power source, including distribution boards or underground cables.
In the case of mobile machinery and powerlines, the safety regulator has reminded employers to take the following steps:
- identify all powerlines on site and at site entrance or exit points;
- comply with the No-Go-Zone rules and spotter requirements when operating mobile plant around powerlines;
- monitor weather conditions closely, particularly extreme heat and strong winds;
- designate travel paths, loading and unloading areas well away from powerlines;
- install warning signs or other visual indicators on each side of the powerline to warn operators and drivers;
- consider the type and height of heavy vehicles, plant and machinery and if it can safely operate near the powerlines;
- induct drivers and operators in the risks of powerlines on site, and the controls in place to prevent hitting the powerlines;
- train workers to take care at dawn and dusk when powerlines are more difficult to see;
- if routinely working near powerlines, consider engineering controls, such as presence sensing systems that can detect power lines and interlock plant movements; and
- consult with workers on safe systems of work for operating near powerlines.
Ignoring the risk of an electric shock when working near powerlines can be costly. In 2017, NSW construction company WGA Pty Ltd was fined a record $1 million after a subcontractor received an electric shock while working near live high-voltage powerlines.
NSW District Court Judge Andrew Scotting found the subcontractor had been exposed to a “risk of death or sudden injury” and the employer’s moral culpability for the offence was high because there had been a “blatant disregard of its safety obligations”.
In that case, the subcontractor was installing apartment windows using scaffolding that was close to powerlines without the installation of non-conductive hoarding and the absence of an exclusion zone marked to prevent a person coming within 3m of the powerlines.