Be aware of your surroundings and don’t get complacent near power lines

Lynn Culp
Lynn Culp retired in April after 30 years at Surprise Valley Electric in Alturas, California.

Each year, nearly 400 people die from electrical accidents in the U.S. There are more than 51,000 home structure fires caused by electrical faults that claim another 500 lives.

Electricity is important in our daily lives. Our homes and workplaces are filled with electrical devices, appliances and equipment that help us complete tasks and provide comfort and enjoyment.

Used properly, electricity is a safe energy source. However, carelessness around electricity can result in electrical shock and even death.

As the member service manager for a small rural electric utility, I have been tasked to develop and implement our electrical safety awareness campaign. During the past couple of decades, we have made a concentrated effort to share the electrical
safety message with every child in our service territory at least once during their elementary school years.

On our school visits, we use a demonstration board that features a live power line. A number of potential electrical accidents are set up and talked through, such as a child flying a kite, a farm worker lifting a pipe and a car with a downed power line
on it. The live demonstration board provides a dazzling visual image and audio sensation that leaves a lasting impression on children and adults.

Our message: Electricity always seeks the shortest pathway to the ground. Don’t let it be through you. I am sure everyone has felt some level of electric shock—from the tingling of a battery on the tongue or the snap of static charge when grabbing a door handle to the nearly heart-stopping jolt from an electric livestock fence.

At some point, we have become a pathway for electricity to get to the ground.

Electricity moves through conductors such as wire, metal pipes, poles, ladders, and objects in or containing water, such as wood. The water in our bodies makes us great conductors of electricity.

Insulators are objects made of materials electricity does not move through, such as plastic, rubber and glass, including fiberglass. Devices and tools made from these materials are used in the industry to safely work with high-voltage electricity.

Electricity uses many pathways to get to the ground. Never fly kites by power lines. If a kite or anything else is tangled in the power lines, call your power company. Do not try to get it out yourself.

Always look up before lifting anything long or tall. Make sure you are not under the power line. Metal irrigation pipes, rain gutters, flag poles and antennas are all long or tall and could easily come in contact with distribution power lines. These power lines sag to within 25 feet of the ground and are not insulated. This type of contact with the power line may result in serious injury or death.

Do not trim trees that are in or near the power line. A tree trimmer once told me he received a serious electrical shock when pulling on a limb he had cut off. He did not realize the limb was caught in the power line. This easily could have resulted in a serious or fatal accident. Contact your power company and get their help or recommendation for working on trees.

Treat all downed power lines as live wires. A few years ago, we were called out on a forest fire that had burned through our line. The power line was on the ground. Many firefighters were busily going about their tasks, just stepping over the wire. When our serviceman arrived, he determined the wire was still energized and quickly disconnected the line. Fortunately, none of the firefighters was seriously injured by stepping on the live wire.

Immediately call your power company if you encounter a downed wire. Never try to move a downed power line, even if you don’t think it is energized. If you are in a vehicle with a downed power line on it, stay in the vehicle. You are safe inside the vehicle. If you step out and touch the vehicle and the ground at the same time, you will be a pathway for electricity to get to the ground.

Remember, electricity is always trying to take the shortest path to the ground. Don’t let it be through you.