Bucket trucks are among the most frequently used pieces of equipment in a utility’s fleet. Because of the common use of the trucks, it becomes easy for operators to become complacent in their equipment, inspection, operation and rescue plan – often defaulting to the last job safety analysis with limited consideration for the task at hand and the work environment.
In a frequent scenario, one of Colorado’s electric utility contractors was issued an urgent service ticket. The lineman assigned to the job had years of experience and assumed this task would be much like the hundreds of closed service tickets in his past. Due to time constraints, time of day and ease of repair, he set off solo to complete his mission. Upon arriving at the scene, the lineman quickly surveyed the work site, went about his pre-use inspection and then got to work in the bucket. After completing the task, he found the upper controls of his truck to be non-functional. The lone worker made several attempts to operate the truck using the upper controls, but he was unsuccessful. He then surveyed his options, only to discover the bucket bailout kit issued for his truck was missing. Fortunately, he was reasonably near the yard and able to contact dispatch, which sent a crew and a mechanic to his remote location. After an hour or so, the second crew arrived on the scene and were able to successfully lower the bucket to ground level. Everyone made it home safely with no lasting effects – aside from a story and a learning opportunity.
Although the scenario above ended without damage to individuals or property, the consequences could have been far worse. Many factors were in the lineman’s favor, including good weather, adequate cellphone/radio coverage, no medical concerns and no additional hazards (e.g., fire, aggressive animals). Had any of these issues been present, the outcome could have been entirely different, especially with the lack of available rescue options.
Naturally, the best rescue scenario is the one that never exists. In this case, a thorough pre-trip inspection and function test likely would have identified any failing controls or other potential problems with the truck before it was put into service. Further, the checklist associated with bucket truck inspection should always include a section for appropriate rescue equipment. Workers should ensure all rescue components are present on the truck assigned to them, and those components should be tested in advance to confirm proper function. Workers must also be trained on the correct use of the equipment prior to using it in the field. Additionally, in a perfect world, a second properly trained and authorized lineworker would have been assigned to this job and could have taken control of the aerial work platform, safely bringing the first worker to ground level.
Two Types of Rescue
When it comes to bucket truck rescue, scenarios typically fall into two broad categories: self-rescue and assisted rescue.
Self-rescue can be further broken down into rescue from an incapacitated bucket or rescue after a fall. An incapacitated bucket is often caused due to failure of a mechanical, hydraulic or control system. A fall rescue is often required after some form of unanticipated sudden movement of the aerial work platform, frequently caused by a faulty outrigger, a failed hydraulic system or a vehicle collision that involves the equipment in service. Successful rescue is predicated on preparation, product selection and training.
When it comes to selecting rescue equipment, it is critical that all equipment meets your company’s and the industry’s standards, including those outlined in ANSI Z359.4, “Safety Requirements for Assisted-Rescue and Self-Rescue Systems, Subsystems and Components.” It is also imperative that all users receive formal training specific to the equipment used by your company. At a minimum, the training program should include information about system requirements, inspection criteria, proper use, limits of use and hazard considerations. It is important that the employer documents the specific details of the training, including the names and roles of the participants as well as some type of skills evaluation, either in the form of a written test or a practical demonstration of user ability. This documentation can be as simple as papers in a folder, or it can be administered through a variety of software packages. Additionally, any reputable third-party training company will document this information on the employer’s behalf. Safety training should be delivered by qualified individuals and developed in accordance with ANSI Z490.1, “Criteria for Accepted Practices in Safety, Health and Environmental Training,” which provides the framework for repeatable delivery, student feedback and development. Further, training must follow manufacturer recommendations for installation, use and effects on other systems.
Rescue equipment put into service should be tailored to the environment it is going to be used in, especially if the operator expects to work in hot environments. It is also necessary for company leadership to determine if the rescue devices will be considered part of an employee’s personal protective equipment or issued to the vehicle. Rescue devices issued to the vehicle should be clearly identified, inspected before and after the truck is used, and inspected periodically by a competent person outside of the normal user. Self-rescue or bailout kits are available from several manufacturers. Regardless of what you choose, training and demonstration are required for the potential users – whether the kits or gear is issued to the trucks or individual workers. Keep in mind the gear will be useful for self-evacuation from an incapacitated bucket but of little use after a fall unless attached to the operator’s harness prior to the fall.
A fall from a structure or an ejection from an elevated bucket truck is likely to be one of the most terrifying experiences of an operator’s life – and one that is difficult to prepare for. Manufacturers such as Bashlin, DBI-SALA, Sterling Rope, Petzl and Honeywell Miller offer a variety of components and kits that can be employed for self-rescue or attended rescue. So, there are options for a lone worker to safely navigate to the ground after experiencing such an event. A device unique in its design and function is the BuckEscape by Buckingham Manufacturing. It incorporates a descender, a web ladder and an ancillary D-ring for use as a descent line anchor point, all packed into an integrated storage pouch. The pouch is part of the lanyard connection between the lineworker’s harness and the anchor in the bucket truck. The web ladder allows a conscious user to delay the onset of suspension trauma by deploying the ladder and unweighting their leg loops. Additionally, this system allows the user to anchor a pre-rigged “anti-panic” descender. After fall arrest, the lanyard then becomes a self-rescue kit for the worker to transition from the fall arrest device and make a controlled descent to ground level.
Alternatively, a lone worker could opt to carry a rope ladder or other after-fall self-rescue ladder, which allows a conscious victim to stand in the system and unweight their leg loops, thus delaying the onset of suspension trauma. This could also allow the worker to re-enter the bucket from an elevated position. In the former scenario, a second worker (or a rescuer) would be required to safely lower the aerial work platform to the ground, making it an assisted rescue.
Two is Better than One
It is considered a best practice to prevent workers from working solo. This practice allows for the primary worker to be lowered to ground level if they become incapacitated due to a medical emergency or another unforeseen issue, or if the bucket controls become nonresponsive. In such a case, the second worker manually takes control of the system and uses the lower controls to bring the primary worker to the ground. Provided the primary worker is conscious and physically able to extricate themselves from the bucket, they can seek medical attention as needed. In the event the primary worker is unconscious, it becomes important to have the functionality to physically lift them from the bucket for transport to emergency medical services. This can be accomplished using a high-point anchor and a manual mechanical advantage haul system like a 4:1 or 6:1, which reduces the hauling effort by approximately one-quarter or one-sixth, respectively. Several manufacturers offer rescue systems that are pre-installed and ready for use or installed when needed. These rescue devices attach to the boom of a bucket. Other vendors offer standalone block-and-tackle setups that can be used from a variety of suitable anchorages. Industry best practices dictate that each operator should be familiar with each of these systems, their proper use and the required components, in addition to performing an annual skills demonstration.
With the proliferation of bucket trucks in the utility industry, it is essential that each company’s leadership review anticipated work environments, crew sizes and expected hazards, and that they select equipment best suited to their applications. With proper training, inspection and work policies, it becomes more likely that work activities will take place with a crew of at least two authorized, competent lineworkers. And in the event that a lone worker experiences a system failure, with enough foresight, they will be prepared to effectively navigate this scenario with the equipment on hand.
About the Author: Ty Fenton is the general manger of Safety One Training, the U.S. leader in backcountry vehicle operation and fall protection training. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.