Night work called a factor in farm accidents

A Saskatchewan farmer says an increase in fieldwork being done in the dark is to blame for more power line contacts

Two years ago, Lionel Ector was harvesting a crop near his farm in Elbow, Sask.

It was night-time and he was operating a new combine, a demo machine, from a dealer in Saskatoon.

He steered the combine around a power pole and then continued on his way.

“I straightened out, to go as normal, and the back end of the auger hit the pole,” he said in April, recalling the incident.

“We went to unload the hopper that was full and we broke the shear pin. So, we were done (harvesting) for the night.”

The damage to the combine was $25,000.

“I did have some insurance on it,” Ector said, which reduced the repair bill.

Such accidents between farm machinery and power lines are commonplace in rural Saskatchewan, particularly during spring seeding and fall harvest.

On April 23, SaskPower announced its annual “Look up and Live” campaign, reminding farmers to take an extra minute or two when operating machinery around power lines.

Every year, there are more than 300 incidents where farm equipment contacts overhead power lines in the province, “all of which are preventable,” SaskPower said.

“Farm machinery is bigger than ever. Be sure to take your time, know your equipment, and identify the risks before you start your work,” said Kevin Schwing, director of safety at SaskPower.

“Be aware of overhead power lines while crossing fields and farmyards.”

Manitoba Hydro is also concerned about farm machinery hitting poles and snagging overhead wires.

In 2020, there were 188 cases where a cultivator, seeder or other implement contacted a pole or power line in rural Manitoba.

That’s up 57 percent from 2019, when there were 120 incidents.

There are a number of reasons why such accidents are becoming more frequent, said Tim Yaremchuk, who works for Manitoba Hydro in the Parkland region.

  • Cultivators and seeders are now much larger. Many are 80 feet or wider.
  • Use of auto-steer is a factor because hazards, like hydro poles, are not programmed into GPS systems.
  • Novice operators are unfamiliar with hazards in a field.

SaskPower said in its news release that larger machinery is a factor in accidents.

However, the utility didn’t mention another issue. More farmers now work at night.

“It’s not necessarily the bigger equipment … it’s the drive for efficiency. Farmers have a lot of acres, there are a lot of demands… the work has to get done,” Ector said.

“Working eight to five, banker hours, just doesn’t cut it. Extended hours, evenings and early mornings are really the norm.”

Following his accident, Ector contacted SaskPower, suggesting that poles around farmland should be marked with reflective tape so that producers and farm employees can see the hazard at night.

At the time, a SaskPower representative told Ector that marking poles would be “cost prohibitive.”

However, Scott McGregor, a SaskPower spokesperson, said the utility is considering the reflective tape idea.

“It’s certainly something we’re looking into,” he said.

“But at this time we haven’t made a decision regarding its feasibility…. (Perhaps) as part of the programs we’re increasing funding to.”

Those programs are the Farmyard Line Relocation and Rural Rebuild Program, which will help move power lines from farm fields and farmyards to safer locations.

Spending money on reflective tape is more useful than safety campaigns that remind farmers to be careful around power poles and lines, Ector said.

“If utility companies are serious about safety and liability, this is a reasonable solution,” he said in an email. “Mail-out flyers and trade show demonstrations just are not the same as marking the hazards.”

Across Saskatchewan, the number of farm machinery contacts with power lines and poles was 304 in 2020.

The number has been hovering around 300 for several years, McGregor said.

Many of those accidents happen in the spring, when Saskatchewan farmers are seeding.

Ector’s incident, where he hit a high voltage line, could have been much worse than $25,000 in damage to the combine.

From 2008-17 there were 6,000 power line contacts in Saskatchewan, resulting in nine fatalities. Those figures include agriculture, the construction industry and other activities.

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