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With over one thousand power line contacts in Alberta last year, it’s time for all of us to take a cold, hard look at how and why these incidents are happening. While the majority of these contacts involved overhead power lines, the piece of oversize equipment with the worst record was track hoes.

Whether above our heads or buried below our feet, power lines are a hazard faced by operators across all industries — but why were contacts with track hoes so frequent last year? A lot of factors can come into play when a power line incident occurs, but here’s what makes this equipment high risk.

Risk of Underground and Overhead Hazards

When breaking ground on a job site, careful planning and safety protocols are put in place to prevent track hoe operators from contacting buried utilities. This is crucial and can protect you and your crew from damaging underground infrastructure, as well as injury or death caused by a power line contact. The problem is, overhead hazards are too often overlooked.

The height of a track hoe’s boom and bucket make the equipment just as much at risk of an overhead power line contact as it is with contacting buried utilities. This is true both when the equipment is being operated and when it is being transported.

Working Without a Spotter

 Did you know that Alberta law requires you to have a spotter on the ground to assist in identifying hazards and safe limits of approach? Spotters are key in ensuring that equipment never comes within 7 metres of overhead power lines by using hand signals to communicate with the operator and guiding them along a safe route when equipment is being moved on site.

Without a spotter, it’s difficult to gauge how close a track hoe’s boom and bucket are to an overhead line when you’re sitting in the cab. These distances are called “safe limits of approach.” Even if the equipment doesn’t make direct contact, electricity can arc or “jump” from the power line to any conductive object, and the chances of arcing increase with the voltage.

Gaps in Power Line Safety Knowledge

At the end of the day, it’s your responsibility to follow safety protocols and speak up if something doesn’t feel safe. Some employers may not ensure that everyone who steps on site is educated in power line safety, so make sure to watch out for your crew and help keep them safe.

Beyond learning the steps to identifying hazards on site and safe limits of approach, some operators don’t know how to protect themselves if a power line contact does occur. They might not perceive themselves to be in danger and attempt to exit the equipment, unintentionally making themselves a conductor for the electricity to travel from the equipment to the ground.

Nearby workers are also at risk of being electrocuted, as the operator and ground surrounding the equipment can be energized. Always stay at least 10 metres away from the incident, then contact 911 and the local utility company.

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