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Agricultural Safety Around Overhead Lines

Updated September 20, 2023

John Keimig

SDSU Extension Youth Safety Field Specialist

Green tractor driving down a road with low-hanging powerlines across it.

Fall is a busy time for agricultural producers in the Midwest. Days are getting shorter with less daylight, and each day gets producers closer to winter and the weather associated with it. With these factors at the forefront, there is a perception that things must be done in hurry. Sometimes when people get in a hurry, they don’t pay as much attention to doing things safely. When you compound that with the nature of agricultural work, you can create a potential for disaster. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries.

Every year farmers are injured or killed in electricity-related accidents. According to the National Ag Safety Database, every year 62 farm workers in the United States are electrocuted. To raise an additional cause for concern, 3.6% of deaths among youth under 20 years-of-age are caused by electrocution.

The changing face of agriculture has raised the need for concern regarding electrical safety. Equipment continues to get larger and taller. Grain spouts on combines become longer to get past the headers. Chisels often span forty plus feet to cover many acres on a timely basis. Larger equipment raises the risk for increased electrical line awareness. Accidents with electrical lines can happen during any time of the day, but working in the dark or in low light timeframes can increase the potential of contact with electrical lines.

Inside Equipment

If the piece of equipment you are operating does make contact with an overhead electrical line, there are things the equipment operator should do:

  • Stay on the vehicle, unless there is a fire.
  • Immediately contact the local utility company to shut off the power.
  • Do not allow any part of your body to touch the equipment and the ground at the same time.
  • If there is an emergency, such as an electrical fire, and you must leave the equipment, jump as far away as possible.
  • Shuffle away from where you jumped. To shuffle, do not lift either foot completely off the ground. Keep both feet in contact with the ground at all times. Shuffling greatly reduces current flow through your body from the ground. Shuffle slowly away from the equipment for at least 100 feet.
  • Once you are away from the vehicle, never attempt to get back on or even touch it. Many electrocutions occur when someone dismounts, then gets back on the vehicle, assuming these is no problem.
  • Communicate with others about the situation, inform them to not touch the equipment and risk becoming electrocuted.

Outside Equipment

Another area of concern beyond electrocution while operating equipment results from coming into contact with overhead electrical lines while outside of the equipment when producers are on foot. Equipment and tools that have the greatest risk for coming in contact include: ladders, irrigation pipes and portable grain augers. Movement of these items should not be done in the dark, and, if possible, should not be done alone, as the potential for losing control is higher.

Table 1. Effect of electric current on humans.

Risk Milliampere Effects
Safe Less than 1. No sensation, not felt.
Safe 1 to 8 Shock sensation; not painful' can let go at will.
Unsafe 8 to 15 Painful shock' can let go at will.
Unsafe 15 to 20 Painful shock; loss of adjacent muscle control; cannot let go.
Unsafe 20 to 50 Painful, severe muscle contractions; difficulty breathing.
Unsafe 50 to 100 Possible ventricular fibrillation.
Unsafe 100 to 200 Certain ventricular fibrillation.
Unsafe More than 200 Severe burns; severe muscular contractions; chest muscles clamp heart and stop it for the duration of shock.
One milliampere (mA) is 1/1000th of an ampere (current). Ventricular fibrillation is a breakdown of the pumping coordination of hear muscles that will not correct itself. This information applies to adults. Weaker currents could be fatal to children. Information taken from the National Safety Council. Source: Texas Cooperative Extension.

Reducing Risk

As an agricultural producer, you can reduce your risk of electrocution by following these recommendations.

  • Be aware of the location of overhead power lines on your farm and choose a route for your equipment that avoids them.
  • Never touch a power line.
  • Avoid using ladders, portable augers or irrigation equipment around power lines.
  • Maintain 10 feet of clearance space between the power lines and your equipment. Contact your power company to determine the height of power lines on your farm.
  • Review safety measures with all individuals working on your farm, whether full-time, part-time, voluntary or family.
  • Remember that even nonmetallic objects, such as tree limbs, ropes, and straw, can conduct electricity.

In Summary

Don’t have an unfortunate harvest season and become a farm accident statistic! Assessing your electrocution hazards around your farm and fields and developing a plan may save a life this year. For more information, see the following references and resources:


Additional Resources