A Queensland billboard company was recently fined $250,000 after a worker received an electric shock from a powerline that the company knew was a hazard and which was closer than the three-metre exclusion zone required under state law.
The company was found guilty in the Mackay Magistrates Court of breaching the Electrical Safety Act 2002 in the 2016 Balberra incident.
The Mackay Magistrates Court heard that a worker employed by the defendant received an electric shock from a 33kV overhead powerline while changing the skin on an advertising sign. The top corner of the sign was 2.6m from the powerline and the aluminium sail track being used to carry out the work, and which contacted the powerline, was 3m long.
A/Magistrate Ron Muirhead noted that the degree of harm that might result from electric shock from the power line was death or severe injury, and that the given the nature of the work and the limited training provided to workers, the likelihood or risk from electric shock was high. He also said that there were available and suitable ways to eliminate the risk of electric shock, but the company made no effort to contact Ergon Energy to request the powerline be moved or raised. It was also noted that the cost of eliminating the risk was relatively minor, especially in proportion to the risk involved.
In sentencing, the magistrate considered that the defendant had no previous convictions and had cooperated with the investigation. After the incident, the company had contacted Ergon to arrange for them to raise the power lines and had assisted the injured worker in relation to medical treatment.
The defendant was convicted and fined $250,000 and ordered to pay costs of $7,475.38. The conviction was not recorded. The defendant has appealed the conviction.
The Electrical Safety Office (ESO), which led the investigation, found the company provided only limited training to its workers in relation to exclusion zones and the need to stay at least 3m from this type of powerline.
ESO head Victoria Thomson said the breach of safety laws came despite the company being aware of its duty to its workers and several well-publicised prosecutions for electrical incidents in the past, some involving billboard workers.
“Ergon Energy actively encourages businesses to call for advice if there are concerns powerlines could pose a threat to their workers and specifically urges billboard companies to respect the 3m exclusion zone,” Ms Thomson said.
“In this instance, the hazard could have been negated if The Paradise Outdoor Building Company had asked Ergon Energy to raise the overhead powerline or ensured neither its workers nor their equipment came within the powerline’s exclusion zone.
“After the incident, the company paid $4,500 to have a higher pole installed, lifting the powerline three metres higher – this could have been done much earlier.”
Ms Thomson said if work had to be done near powerlines then employers needed to conduct a site-specific risk assessment, develop a safe system of work before starting, keep workers and contractors informed about electrical safety, and importantly, avoid going into exclusion zones.
“Overhead and underground powerlines can be identified by consulting maps or talking to the property owner and the electrical entity,” she said.
“Ergon Energy even has an online tool which makes this check quicker and simpler than it’s ever been.
“Without a doubt, the most effective way to control the risk from powerlines is to de-energise or move the line while the work’s being done.
“If that can’t happen then you must ensure your workers know where powerlines are and keep well clear of them – which means they also need to know the height and reach of any equipment they’re going to be using.
“You can also speak to Ergon or Energex about painting power poles or having them install markers or flags on the powerlines.
“Installing warning signs at the top of the billboard to remind workers and contractors of the proximity of powerlines is also a good idea.”
Ergon Energy’s new powerline safety planning tool to assist planning work around powerlines is being trialled at lookupandlive.com.au