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5 Safety Factors to Consider in Unfamiliar Territory

On a routine workday, it’s likely that you are in a familiar place. The people and the system around you? They’re probably familiar, too. But when we as lineworkers are asked to respond to storms or other emergencies via mutual aid or a storm call, all that can change quickly. Suddenly, we may find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. So, in this month’s Tailgate Topic, let’s review five safety factors we must consider when on a foreign property.

1. Onboarding
Our first opportunity to familiarize ourselves with our new environment is the onboarding meeting, which is typically held as soon as we set foot on the host utility’s property. It’s a good idea to make a check sheet well in advance of your arrival. As the onboarding person or team delivers their presentation, check off and make notes on those items that are addressed and ask questions about those that have not been. Don’t be shy at this meeting! Additionally, make sure to assess the depth of knowledge of the person onboarding you. When it comes to large events, the host company’s human resources can be stretched thin. Utilities may draw on the expertise of employees who are from outside the area or who have been removed from field work for some time. The same may hold true for the crew guide or “bird dog” who is assigned to you. To ensure that your team can perform safely and efficiently, insist that all issues are addressed to your satisfaction.

2. Operational Authority
Perhaps one of the most critical things to establish is the operating authority of the lines you will be working on. Who can open an isolation point and, more importantly, who can close one? When I would bird-dog foreign crews early in my career, a red flag stapled to the fuse pole was the common practice used to protect the crew. This was probably not sufficient then and it certainly is not sufficient now. In addition to the stricter lockout/tagout rules in place, the electrical grid has become much more of a sophisticated environment. “Smart” reclosers can be operated remotely and can operate automatically, often working in teams of two or more reclosers. Engineers employ fast-curve settings to allow reclosers to see through traditional fuses and prevent them from blowing immediately upon a fault. Utilities have set up operating and tagging procedures to address these growing complexities. Not only that, but many utilities are in the process of implementing distribution management systems to monitor, oversee and often control the automated portions of the distribution system. It is essential that not only you and your crew understand these protocols – your bird dog must as well. It may be necessary to request to speak to a local foreperson or operating engineer if you have any doubts about the safety of your crew, the public or the system.

3. Working Near Other Crews
With the rise of customer expectations and political pressure, utilities are deploying more field forces during storm restorations than ever. While this can speed restoration efforts, it can also present challenges. In the early days of a storm event, it is not unusual for the foreign crews first to arrive to be assigned entire circuits and, in many cases, entire substations. As more crews arrive, the restoration draws closer to completion, and pressure from customers and local politicians increases, the playing field becomes more crowded. Anyone who has worked a storm knows the understandable anxiety and apprehension of seeing an unfamiliar bucket truck driving past their work site. The bird dog should know who else is working in that area, what they are doing and how they are isolated from your work. If they cannot provide this information with certainty, your work needs to stop until those questions can be answered. Keep in mind that the unfamiliar crew may be just as wary of you. It is a good practice for you and your bird dog to stop the other crew to have a friendly conversation and assure each other’s safety. You may be pleasantly surprised by someone you’ve worked with in the past and share a few minutes of camaraderie. Lastly, be alert to open cutouts, tags and grounds as these also indicate someone is in your vicinity.

4. Environment
Parts of the country and even parts of a utility’s service area can differ widely. As such, it’s important to learn as much as you can about the area’s environmental hazards, which can range from ticks and venomous snakes to violent crime to extreme heat or cold, and maybe even sewage from de-energized or flooded wastewater plants. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with local traffic patterns, road conditions and road signage.

5. System Characteristics
Make sure you are familiar with the type of system you are working on. Is it a wye system or an ungrounded delta system that can result in energized downed wires? Obtain and understand the local circuit maps or diagrams. Understand the meaning of the symbols used, such as those for step-down/ratio transformers and automated reclosers. These symbols can differ from property to property.

In closing, deploying to a foreign utility for storm restoration work can be rewarding – not only financially but also by way of helping others regain normalcy in their lives. At the same time, it can present very serious challenges and hazards that must be controlled. Remember that no storm restoration effort is a successful one unless it is free of serious injuries and fatalities.

About the Author: Bob Dunderdale, CUSP, serves as a line foreman for Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. in New York. He has 39 years of experience in various utility roles.