Power pole contact incidents soar

The number of cases where farm machinery hit a pole or snagged a wire was up 57 percent between 2019 and 2020 in Manitoba

Manitoba farmers are hitting more hydro poles and power lines with their farm equipment.

In 2020, there were 188 cases where a cultivator, seeder or another implement crashed into a pole or snagged a wire somewhere in the province.

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

Manitoba Hydro, the provincial utility, is concerned about the rise in cases because every incident with a high voltage wire is potentially fatal.

“The most common high voltage you can come in contact with in rural Manitoba is 7,200 volts to ground. Or 14,400 volts to ground,” said Cyril Patterson, director of customer service for Manitoba Hydro in rural Manitoba.

Patterson and other Hydro representatives spoke at the Keystone Agricultural Producers spring council meeting, held online in mid-April, to raise awareness about the risk of contacting high voltage lines with farm equipment.

Manitoba Hydro data shows that cultivators and seeders are the main cause of damage to hydro poles and lines.

  • In 2020, cultivators were involved in 44 percent of incidents and 26 percent in 2019.
  • In 2020, seeders caused 12 percent of incidents and 18 percent in 2019.
  • Augers caused seven percent of accidents in 2019 and five percent in 2020.

Most damage isn’t happening in the farmyard. It’s happening in the field. Of the 188 accidents in 2020, 40 percent occurred in the field.

In 2019, 52 percent of the 120 incidents occurred in the field.

Many of the accidents are what Hydro calls “outstrikes.” That’s where a cultivator, seeder or another implement makes contact with a pole or guy wire at the edge of a field.

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.

One reason is obvious — cultivators and seeders are much larger today. Many are 80 feet or wider. The use of auto-steer is also a factor. Hazards, like hydro poles, are not programmed into GPS systems, Yaremchuk said.

Another factor is novice operators, who may be unfamiliar with the machinery or the risks in a particular field.

But a major issue is perception of risk. Earlier this year, Manitoba Hydro hired a polling firm to survey farmers across the province.

The survey asked farmers about the hazards on their farm and the risk of hitting poles or hydro wires. One question was about where accidents happen: which areas of the farm represent the highest risk for contacting poles and overhead wires.

Most producers said the farmyard and approaches to fields represent the highest risk. Only 11 percent said the field.

But in 2020, 40 percent of all incidents happened in the field. And more than 50 percent in 2019.

In the last two years, about 10 percent of such accidents happened in the farmyard.

“When… we look at 2019 and 2020, the majority of damages are happening in the field,” said Rob Morrison, damage prevention co-ordinator with Hydro.

“You guys are doing a fantastic job in your farmyard…. You’ve probably put measures in place… to identify all of those risks.”

Manitoba Hydro plans to change the messaging in its safety campaigns, to inform producers about the risks of hitting poles, guy wires and lines in farm fields.

The incidents interrupt electrical service, can be costly and can cost a life.

“The outcome for these contacts can be tragic and severe,” Patterson said.

A producer from Portage la Prairie said Manitoba Hydro should move its system underground in rural areas. Instead of replacing old poles with new poles, it should (over time) get rid of the overhead delivery system.

That’s not realistic because underground service is three times more expensive than poles to install, Patterson said.

Plus, underground ages quickly. It only has a lifespan of 25-30 years in rural areas. A pole can last 70 to 80 years.

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