Electrical safety on the farm demands thinking ahead

Safe habits around electricity take the same mindset as buckling a seatbelt before every excursion.
Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Published on February 8, 2017 10:26AM

Paul Ortmann, power quality engineer with Idaho Power, explains how to stay safe around electricity on the farm during a presentation at the Agri-Action trade show in Twin Falls on Feb. 2.

Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press

Paul Ortmann, power quality engineer with Idaho Power, explains how to stay safe around electricity on the farm during a presentation at the Agri-Action trade show in Twin Falls on Feb. 2.

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Cultivating good safety habits around electricity now might save a life later.

That was the message Paul Ortmann, Idaho Power quality power engineer, delivered to those attending an electrical safety seminar at Agri-Action on Feb. 2.

Rule No. 1 — never go into an energized electrical panel, leave it to an electrician and leave the panel closed. If the cover is open and someone goes into it with a tool, it could easily explode, resulting in death or serious injury.

Good installation and maintenance is vital and will prevent having to troubleshoot inside an energized panel, he said.

“Well-maintained equipment is safer. Get it inspected and serviced in the next couple of months” before the irrigation season, he said.

Safety tips

One way to make equipment safer is to have an appropriately sized circuit breaker. It should be just big enough that it doesn’t trip when the pump motor is started.

A voltage meter, hard-wired to the system, is also a good idea. It can recall why the system tripped and has a real-time voltage display. It reduces trouble shooting and “poking around in the panel,” he said.

In addition to arc flash and arc blast hazards in the panel, electrical shock is also a hazard on farms.

“One of the problems is we are not equipped to detect voltage,” he said.

Shock hazards are invisible, silent, odorless and tasteless and might not be obvious, he said.

Farmers should keep an eye on their electricity accounts to see if something is going on that shouldn’t be, such as power usage by equipment that’s supposed to be turned off. A downed wire, bright and dim lights at the same time, scorching at a grounding connector and, obviously, reports of shock are all signs of a likely problem.

But there might be no signs at all.

One of the good habits he recommends for investigating electrical problems is to always carry a voltage pen with an alarm and never touch a possible conductor.

“The bottom line is every conductor is hot until it is verified that it’s not energized,” he said.

A voltage pen will go off the closer it gets to voltage, at which point a person should back up and call an electrician. If a person does touch a potential conductor, he should at least touch it with the back of the hand so a current doesn’t force the muscles of an open hand to grab onto the conductor, unable to turn loose.

Ungrounded current

Step voltage can be an issue, too, arising from a faulted system with a missing or broken ground that sends current flowing in the earth. Both the proximity to where the current enters or leaves the ground and the length of the step, or distance between feet, increase the voltage potential.

To be safe, a person should walk slowly and take small steps near electrical equipment, check conductive surfaces with a voltage pen from as far away as possible and back away if the alarm sounds. De-energize the system from upstream and retest, calling the power company if assistance is needed.

If a person does touch a conductor, keeping the feet together will at least address the voltage gradient, he said.

If a vehicle comes in contact with electrical current and can’t safely be moved, anyone inside should stay put until help arrives — because the current is flowing through the vehicle and into the earth. If the cab stops being safe, the person should jump clear of the vehicle with feet together — but don’t try to set a broad-jump record, he said.

“Keep your feet together and stick the landing (don’t fall) and don’t reach back and shut the door,” he said.

Just like wearing a seat belt, good habits for electrical safety can prevent injury or disaster, he said.


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