Brown’s death renews focus on electrical safety at clinic

Managing Editor

GEORGETOWN, Del. (May 31, 2016) — Following the death of Bill Brown, a Maryland poultry farmer and University of Delaware Extension poultry agent, in an accident on his farm, electrical safety has been on the minds of many in the industry.
Brown’s death on April 14 accelerated efforts by the Extension services in Maryland and Delaware to hold a workshop on the topic last week at UD’s Carvel Research and Education Center.
“There’s not a day that goes by since Bill died that I don’t think about it,” said Jenny Rhodes, an Extension agent in Queen Anne’s County and one of the workshop’s organizers. “When I look at a motor or a feed line, I think about it a lot differently.”
An overarching message of the workshop was to not take safety for granted when working on equipment. It’s common to fall into a routine, speakers said, or become more concerned with getting things working again than doing it safely, but taking the time to do it with the least risk of injury should be the top priority.
Showing the group photos of different hazards he’s found in his poultry houses and elsewhere, Stephen Collier, UD poultry research manager, said the experience of losing Brown has changed how he works in the houses.
“I have a routine. I walk through these houses every day, seven days a week,” Collier said. “I realized I’m too complacent. If you can relate to any of these pictures, I would suggest that you are as well.”
Tim Norman, an electrician at Barnes Electric in Rhodesdale, Md., said when he goes into a chicken house for a service call, he first observes the environment for things that pose risk.
The amount of moisture in the litter is one along with how much dust is settled on electrical equipment. He urged attendees to make a plan of action for electrical problems and follow it. He said he’s also had to “retrain” himself in approaching electrical problems to avoid cutting corners and risking injury.
The basics include not working alone, always de-energizing equipment either by unplugging or at the breaker panel before working on it and remembering a house’s controller will run equipment if it’s programmed to regardless of someone working on it.
When checking motors and other equipment for power, Norman said he uses a pocket-size non-contact voltage tester first but also a multimeter as an added measure.
Norman said electrocutions are the fourth highest cause of industrial deaths, responsible for about 600 deaths per year and 3,600 disabling injuries in the United States.
One large misconception Norman said he hears often is that 120 volt “low voltage” electric isn’t a dangerous threat.
The current or amperage mainly determines the risk, Norman said. For perspective, a one-amp current goes to run a 100-watt light bulb but one-thousandth of that current, 100 milliamps, is enough to stop a person’s heart from beating.
“120 volts is a very lethal voltage. It’s not the voltage that’s going to get you, it’s what it is supplying that will ring your bell.”
Norman recommended wearing good quality leather work gloves and leather boots, preferably with waterproofing and insulating soles, when working on equipment.
Using tools with handles insulated with rubber or plastic and a fiberglass ladder instead of aluminum are other easy ways to reduce risk, he said.
The threat of electrocution extends outside the poultry house and Dr. Jim Glancey, UD bioresources engineer, said the condition of surrounding electric poles and wires should be on every farmer’s checklist.
Wires along roadways have to be at a regulated height with communication wires the lowest at 15.5 feet form the ground, so Glancey said if any of the wires appear low to call the utility.
“If you pick up the phone and say, ‘I think I see an electrical hazard,’ they’re going to be there quick,” Glancey said. “This turns out to be a pretty significant hazard on farms, especially when you start moving equipment around.”
Checking the inspection badges on poles, the plastic covering the wire down the pole and ground wire connection are other things to monitor periodically. Guy wires should have colored visibility shields if there’s the possibility of pedestrian or vehicle traffic.
“Those guy wires are killers if they’re not seen,” he said.
Many utilities offer free services to keep equipment working properly.
Glancey said Delaware utilities offer free inspections of poles and wire distances, data logging for voltage and current monitoring, and load surveys to assess if a voltage transformer is at the right capacity for the farm’s needs. 
“If it’s not big enough, they will replace it recognizing that it’s in their best interest as well, not to start a transformer fire,” Glancey said.
Each of the workshop presentations are available for viewing online at