Overhead power lines are ever present in modern life. They are so prevalent that they’ve practically become invisible. And that can greatly magnify the danger they present.

A lot of money, thought, and energy go into making our power grid as safe as possible. For the safety measures to work, however, people must be aware of where risk exists and what the best practices are to mitigate it.

“Power lines are everywhere and people don't always recognize the amount of power that's present and ready to jump out of that wire if you provide an alternate path,” says Scott Saint, Chief Public Safety Officer and Vice President of Regulatory and Safety Programs at the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA). “You need to look up, look out, and respect the power.”

Electricity is “lazy”

In the past ten years, over 1,300 accidental contacts with live power lines have been reported in Ontario, and countless more go unreported every year. As a result of those incidents, 23 people lost their lives and many more were injured. It would be easy to assume that most of these accidents occurred as a result of people working on the lines directly. However, the vast majority of accidents occurred not when people were intentionally working on power lines but in situations where they were insufficiently aware of the power lines being there in the first place. “Seventy percent of power line contacts take place on construction sites,” says Saint. “Dump trucks are the leading offender, but any elevated item can be a risk. And you don’t even have to touch the line. Electricity can jump to you or your equipment if you get too close. Electricity is lazy — it always wants to take the easiest path to ground, whether that's a dump truck, a crane, a vacuum truck, a ladder or a person.”

To safely operate raised equipment like dump trucks near power lines, Saint offers a threepoint checklist. First and foremost, look up and identify all power lines when initially entering a worksite. It's what you aren't aware of that is most likely to hurt you. Second, always use a signaller, a second pair of eyes on the ground who can monitor the distance from power lines to raised equipment and ensure that a safe threemetre buffer is maintained. Finally, always lower the bucket after emptying a load, rather than moving with it raised. These three precautions alone are enough to dramatically decrease the risk of accidental power line contacts. It is also worth contacting the local distribution company to inquire as to whether the lines can be deactivated for the duration of work.

When the worst happens, don't panic

When accidental power line contact does occur, the most important thing is to remain calm. Exiting or moving the vehicle at this point is usually more dangerous than sitting tight and waiting for assistance, since power will be running through the vehicle and electrifying the ground around it.

“If a contact occurs, the driver should stay in the vehicle,” says Saint. “Someone should call 9-1-1 immediately. And everyone outside the vehicle, including first responders, should stay at least 10 metres back from the vehicle until the power is turned off.”

For construction workers especially, but also for anyone who has any business on worksites, proper education and training regarding power line safety are vital. To this end, the ESA has collaborated with their safety partners to create training and education materials for workers and the general public. The most important point, however, remains a simple one: be aware and respect the power.

It only takes one mistake to end a life when dealing with the incredible power running through overhead lines. Armed with the proper knowledge, however, these mistakes can be avoided.