Electric wells can harbor dangers A cotton farmer climbs onto a module builder to finish dumping some wet cotton during harvest and is fatally electrocuted by an overhead high voltage wire. Another farmer is accidentally electrocuted after coming in contact with an irrigation pump that had been shorted out by hungry field rodents.

According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service's National Ag Safety Database, electricity is the seventh-leading cause of deaths on farms and causes unknown amounts of property and livestock loss every year.

"Agricultural workers are particularly subject to the hazards of electricity because tall equipment, such as grain augers, combines, raised dump-truck beds, and irrigation systems can become entangled in overhead power lines," the safety center says. "Agricultural buildings are also subject to dusty, moist and corrosive environments, making them especially troublesome when using electricity."

In addition, electrical wire insulation can degrade due to rodents, weathering, or normal wear. Improper wiring, improper wire size or type and corrosion of electrical connections are other potential hazards.

For those Mid-South farmers with electrical irrigation wells, agricultural engineer Herb Willcutt at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss., suggests periodically inspecting the electrical components of all wells.

"Electrical well systems should be installed by a certified electrician and inspected by your power supplier prior to use. These units should then be re-inspected each year by a certified electrician or someone knowledgeable in electrical components."

Willcutt says it is not uncommon for birds or rats to make their nests, or for spider webs and other debris to build up, causing damage to electrical boxes. Lightning storms can also cause unseen damage to electrical components.

"If you've got several units, it is not out of the question to hire an electrician to do an annual inspection of all of your electrical wells in row crop fields or aeration pumps on catfish ponds," he says.

To avoid a possible electrical shock, Willcutt recommends first insuring that the power to the electrical box is off before you open the box. If you have a lever-operated switch box or panel, the lever should be in the "off" position.

"Before you grasp the power lever with either hand, you need to brush the back of your hand against the outside of the electrical box. If the hair on your arm stands up, you'll know the box is `live' and energized with current," he says.

It's important not to check the box with the palm of your hand, he says, because the natural tendency is to tighten your grip in a situation like that, which could get you killed.

"The only part of the electrical box you want to contact is the insulated handle," Willcutt says. "If the handle is on the right side of the box, walk up and swipe it with the outside of your left hand. Then, switch the electricity on with your left hand so you are standing to the side of the box in case the box were to explode."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offers the following additional electrical safety tips:

- Install and use any electrical safety devices that are available.

- Treat every electrical wire as a hot wire.

- Check the condition of all power cords and devices and repair or replace as necessary.

- Make sure power is disconnected before working on any electrical device.

- If a "hot" circuit must be worked on, call a qualified electrician.

- Use double-insulated tools, which put an additional barrier between you an electricity.

- Make sure any wiring you do meets the suggestions from the National Electric Code, which are contained in most books on electricity.