Two farmers dead and two injured from contacting overhead electricity cables

On 16 March 2010, two farmers outside Rainbow in Victoria were killed when the windmill they were moving touched live overhead electricity cables.  According to preliminary reports from the emergency ambulance service, two work colleagues went to the rescue and were injured themselves.

A video report is available HERE.

According to media information from WorkSafe Victoria:

“A father and son died this morning while moving a 25-foot metal windmill which came into contact with a 12,500 volt power line.

The incident occurred while moving a 25 foot metal windmill was being moved using a tractor with a forklift attachment on it.”

One media report from the local newspaper shows an image of the burnt-out  windmill and tractor.

As the incident is only 24 hours old, information is scarce and contradictory.  Some reports say the windmill was being installed, others say the windmill was simply being moved.  A major question in the investigation is bound to be if the windmill was simply being transported, why was this done with the windmill in an upright position? Was the fact, reported by ABC News, that the windmill was being relocated only 15 metres relevant?  If the windmill was being installed, the windmill may have been upright as the tines in the tractor may have been used for positioning the windmill.  The various investigations will surely address these issues.

Regardless of the position of the windmill, the deaths of Johnny and Mick Helyar, again raise the risk of overhead power cables on farms, an issue that has been previously identified as a traffic hazard on dairy farms,  and a plant operating hazard in orchards (p 172).  Guidance on working near overhead cables has been produced by WorkSafe but only in relation to the construction industry so it is unlikely that this guidance was used or known about in the farming sector, even though many in the Wimmera-Mallee region remember the fatal electrocution of a farmer in similar circumstances in a town not far from Rainbow, Nhill, in April 2006.

Safety information directly relevant to working near overhead electricity cables on farms has been available for some time from the Office of Electrical Safety.

There have already been media statements about farmers not looking up when moving large items on farms and looking up is one control measure for this hazard.  In the Rainbow deaths, the farmer was not working in isolation and the activities of the other three people at the work site are bound to be investigated when they are able to be questioned

Looking at other control measures for overhead cables that have been considered generally in the past one option is to relocate all electricity cables underground.  This eliminates the overhead hazard but in many isolated rural locations is prohibitively expensive and farmers may decide against this option.

Overhead cables on most rural properties are single cables and are difficult to see sometimes because they are thin.  It may be possible to increase the visibility of the cables  by covering them with a tape sheath or lightweight balls, at least over traffic areas.  The sheath is described as “tiger tail” in one guide for professional electricians.  This is not very aesthetic but that is exactly the point of the control option.

Only yesterday, SafetyAtWorkBlog attended the Victorian Coroners” Court to hear the findings into a death from 2001 involving an elevated work platform.  Coroner’s findings are an important source of OHS recommendations and in Victoria under new legislation the Coroner’s office has established a “Coroner’s Prevention Unit“.  This unit assists coroners by

  • “Reviewing a range of reportable and reviewable deaths
  • Collecting and analysing data relating to reportable and reviewable deaths
  • Assisting coroners in the development of prevention-focussed coronial recommendations
  • Monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of coronial recommendations”

The last point is an important recent development and is likely to be influential in the area of workplace safety in the future.

I have spent many holidays and weekends in Rainbow and was married in the local church there over 20 years ago.  I have a fairly good understanding (for a city boy) of farms in the region and know that the death of anyone associated with the town is felt by the local community whether that death is from a farming activity or a traffic incident.

It is also acknowledged that the awareness of safety on farms has increased over the last couple of decades through the work of local groups with the support of WorkSafe.

Our sympathies go out to the Helyar family over their loss and to the  relatives of the survivors, Ian and Nathan Wheeler.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

3 thoughts on “Two farmers dead and two injured from contacting overhead electricity cables”

  1. As a farmer, this left me feeling sick when I saw the blackened windmill and tractor on the news. I can imagine how this could happen.

    Farmers have to be jacks of all trades – mechanics, vets, biologists, chemists, you name it – and all on tiny budgets. Farmers don\’t have the luxury of engineering departments equipped with the kind of technology and the specialists that could reduce the risk of a tragedy like this. They make do with the resources they have, which is mostly their own ingenuity and hard yakka.

    Of course, these are all sweeping generalisations but the profits of farming enterpises are low compared to those of other industries and the compromises forced by uncertain cashflow inevitably has a knock-on effect on safety.

  2. This is so very tragic, my warmest thoughts and sympathy goes to the family and friends Johnny and Mick Helyar.

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