On a clear, sunny day following a fierce thunderstorm the night before, Mark drove off to work. The schedule for the day was busy with repairing downed lines in several heavily trafficked neighborhoods followed by some scheduled maintenance at a router station. Mark met up with his crew, reviewed the schedule and then the team headed out for what they expected to be a long day. The crew was experienced, though, so Mark felt confident they would be able to complete their list of tasks.
In the driver’s seat of the crew cab on the way to repairing the downed lines, Mark thought about the task ahead; it would pose a challenge, but he and his team knew the drill and felt comfortable navigating to the assigned areas. In fact, he had grown up in one of the neighborhoods on their route and knew a few shortcuts. They were somewhat off the mapped routes, but Mark and the rest of the crew felt they could save some time by following the shortcuts. Indeed, the crew did save some time and found themselves a bit ahead of schedule.
As they made their way down a narrow, one-lane alley, Mark noticed a group of kids pulling tree limbs out of the alley to build a makeshift fort. Mark and the crew pulled alongside them to praise the fort effort and give a little building advice. Distracted by the situation, the crew didn’t notice a large delivery truck coming toward them. With no room for either the crew cab or the delivery truck to move or turn around, and the delivery truck driver blaring his horn at the utility crew to get out of the way, Mark decided to back out of the alley and directly onto the street.
As Mark backed up and looked to his left, he heard the sound of screeching brakes and then, suddenly, felt a forceful impact on the right side of the truck that slammed him and his team to the left side of the cab. The crew cab had been T-boned by an oncoming vehicle traveling at more than 30 mph. Not only was the truck now unable to be driven, but, even worse, Mark and his team members as well as people in the other vehicle were injured and had to be transported to the hospital. What had started out as a great day had turned into a wreck – literally.
A Common Occurrence
When we review this scenario, we can fairly easily point out the mistakes Mark and his crew made: veering off assigned routes, navigating narrow alleyways, becoming distracted by kids playing, not looking far enough ahead to see the oncoming delivery truck and, most critically, backing onto a busy street without using proper traffic control measures. While this scenario may seem incidental, the fact is crashes that involve service vehicles, including utility trucks, are quite common. In a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (see www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2004-137/), roadway crashes were found to be the leading cause of occupational fatalities in the U.S. Over a 10-year period, traffic-related motor vehicle crashes accounted for the deaths of 13,337 civilian workers – or 22 percent of all fatal workplace injuries. And 33 percent of these fatal workplace injuries occurred in the transportation/communications/public utilities sector.
Why such a high rate? Part of the answer lies in looking at the human factor as it relates to these crashes. Utility vehicles are typically driven by professionals, such as utility service workers who are otherwise trained to observe safety as part of their job, with an emphasis on handling and working around electrical equipment with all its inherent hazards. But there is not necessarily an equal emphasis on training these same workers to drive safely as a critical job function. In the utility industry, much of the focus is on ensuring tasks on the job site are safely completed, but equal attention should be given to assuring all drivers and their crew members arrive alive at each and every destination.
As a dedicated public safety professional who previously spent 30 years working in law enforcement, John Abraham, safe driving program coordinator at Seattle City Light, has seen firsthand the difference that focused training on defensive driving can make. “My goal at Seattle City Light is to raise awareness with everyone, whether they drive a service vehicle or not,” he said. “Safety is a full-time job, not a part-time practice. Driving safely is not incidental to the crew member’s job. It’s a necessary part of it.”
Just as electricians observe grounding before working on a line, Abraham believes in “grounding” his team in defensive driving. Ongoing defensive driving training includes knowledge and practice of visual searches, hazard identification, communicating with other drivers, and speed and space management. According to Abraham, “If we can have all employees embrace and apply defensive driving skills as if they’re as important as their electrical or engineering skills, then we will keep ourselves – and the public we work for – safe on today’s congested roadways.”
Training Program Components
What would a professional driver training program for utility workers look like? Borrowing from the practices of leading safety-oriented public utilities like Seattle City Light, a thorough yet flexible approach would include information and hands-on, behind-the-wheel training about:
• Proper setting of mirrors.
• How to conduct visual searches and environmental scans for hazards.
• Communicating with other motorists using eye contact, lights, turn signals, four-way flashers and horns.
• Space management that covers a review of hazards on all six sides – front, back, left, right, top and underside – of the vehicle to be driven.
• Speed management that includes a review of perception/reaction distance and braking distance.
• Proper lane changes.
• Managing intersections, including safely clearing controlled and uncontrolled intersections.
• Right and left turns.
• Distracted driving hazards and how to manage distractions.
• Fatigue management.
• Driving in adverse conditions such as rain, sleet, snow, ice, fog and high winds, as well as at night.
• Emergency maneuvers such as how to avoid a skid and how to safely recover from a skid.
• Safe backing practices including “Get Out and Look.”
• Close-quarter maneuvering, including managing diminishing clearances and navigating through tight, high-density spaces.
The Big Picture
A structured defensive driving program should be provided to all new utility crew hires. This will help immediately establish your organization’s position on safe driving and your commitment to provide new crew hires with training that will help set them up for success.
But don’t just stop with initial training. Research from the American Transportation Research Institute shows that, in addition to initial driver training, crew drivers also benefit from periodic refresher training. Among the safest motor carriers in North America, one will find drivers completing required quarterly – if not monthly – safety review lessons to keep the importance of safe driving front and center. The effort of initial and ongoing driver training is a standard best practice among safety-driven motor carriers who, with loss prevention data in hand, continue to justify the practice.
Lastly, let’s not overlook the personal benefits of defensive driving training. Not only will training your team help keep your crews safe as they journey from job to job, it will also help to ensure they arrive alive when traveling to and from other locations.
Developing and implementing a structured training program that focuses on the knowledge and skill to drive safely and effectively is an effort every utility company should consider. Don’t allow your professional utility crew to become another safety statistic; ensuring workers safely drive to and from work sites is as essential as keeping your crew safe while they perform utility work. Let’s all strive to assure our crew members arrive alive each and every day.
About the Author: Laura McMillan is vice president of training development at Instructional Technologies Inc., a provider of safety training solutions. She is an award-winning workplace learning professional with more than 20 years of experience in the surface transportation and logistics industries. McMillan holds a Class A CDL and works with a variety of clients to provide safety training program guidance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: If you’d like more information about driver skills training for your employees, Laura McMillan will present “Arrive Alive: The Importance of Driver Training for Utility Crews” on September 29 at the iP Utility Safety Conference & Expo in Louisville, Ky. Visit incident-prevention.com to register.