It's National Farm Safety and Health Week, and many electric cooperatives and their statewide associations are using the occasion to focus attention on safety awareness for farmers, ranchers and first responders whose work brings them close to power lines.
“This time of year, we’ve got combines running everywhere, and a lot of agricultural equipment is pretty tall,” said Monty Williams, vice president of marketing and communications at Craighead Electric Cooperative in Jonesboro, Arkansas. “We think it’s important to remind operators to look up so they don’t get into power lines.”
This month, the co-op launched its new “Look Up, Look Out” campaign geared toward educating agricultural workers on how to avoid line contacts.
According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, incidents involving contact with energized electric lines or equipment kill about 60 farmworkers a year.
“The awareness we promote for farmers and ranchers works just as well with construction crews and members pursuing do-it-yourself projects,” said Williams. “We all need to look up before we do any overhead work and look down before we do any digging.”
Many co-ops are demonstrating farm and ranch safety practices during presentations at county fairs and community events this fall.
Staff from United Electric Cooperative, which serves many agricultural members in west-central Pennsylvania, are participating in Clearfield County’s annual Progressive Agricultural Youth Day on Sept. 18.
“It’s an opportunity to stress electric safety education with school-age students,” said Kristy Smith, energy management adviser with the DuBois-based distribution co-op.
The co-op also works with the Pennsylvania State University agricultural extension office on a safety program for elementary school students.
“We address various safety concerns, including electrical safety, underground utilities, ATV safety and animal safety,” said Smith. The program opens with a high-voltage demonstration put on by the co-op’s journeyman lineworkers.
Co-ops in several states are working with the Energy Education Council, which promotes electricity safety, efficiency and renewables education, to emphasize farm and ranch safety with a focus this year on vehicles and equipment and maintaining at least 10 feet of clearance from utility infrastructure.
“The rush to harvest can lead to farmers working long days with little sleep,” said Molly Hall, executive director of Safe Electricity, EEC’s public awareness program. “Make sure to note the location of power lines before starting any task.”
More than 300 electric co-ops in 33 states participate in Safe Electricity programs and provide its educational materials to their members.
“There are steps farmers can take to help keep themselves and workers safe when working around electricity,” said Jim Miles, an electrical safety instructor and a member of Safe Electricity’s Advisory Board. “With the use of large equipment, farmers can easily find themselves in dangerous proximity to overhead lines. Being aware of the location of those wires can help reduce accidents.”
With most farmers spending long hours working alone in their fields, experts recommend flagging lines to help maintain clearances and noting any new right-of-way construction that may have taken place near their property.
“The minimum 10-foot distance is a 360-degree rule—below, to the side, and above lines,” says Jay Solomon, a University of Illinois Extension educator. “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.”
Solomon and other Safe Electricity advisers encourage farm and ranch workers to know what to do if a piece of agricultural equipment comes in contact with an energized power line.
“Stay in the cab and call for help,” explained Solomon. “If the power line is energized and you step outside, your body becomes the path to the ground.”
The increased harvest activity in early autumn makes farm safety awareness a timely topic, but co-op safety leaders say it’s a priority for all four seasons.
“We work to ensure that the farmers and workers keep safety at the forefront of their operations,” said Rob Roedel, corporate communications manager for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. “We promote farm safety throughout the year.”