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Utility task vehicles (UTVs) and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are quickly becoming the preferred motorized equipment for lineworkers to use to access difficult terrain for necessary inspection and repair of infrastructure. And although they are exceptionally capable, these vehicles – identifiable by their large off-road tires, relatively small size and light weight – pose certain challenges for both utilities and contractors who wish to use them on job sites. For starters, some workers use these types of vehicles in their personal lives for various outdoor recreational activities. However, when they are deployed in a professional setting, many of the rider’s habits and rules of operation must change.
Safety One Training, the company we work for, was recently tasked with implementing an industrial training program for a West Coast contractor that complied with a utility company’s training requirements. From the outside, it appears that ATV/UTV training can be complex and challenging to implement, but based on our experience, there are typically three broad categories that need to be addressed before these vehicles can be used on the job site: when to choose these machines, operator training requirements, and machine capabilities and limitations.
When to Choose an ATV/UTV
When to choose an ATV or a UTV – which is sometimes referred to as a side-by-side or SxS – heavily depends on the work to be performed, terrain, weather and other transportation options available. To be allowed on a job site, a worker must first demonstrate that the ATV or UTV is the right tool for the job. That means proving that driving a pickup truck, walking or using a snowcat would not be practical. For example, it might make sense for two people to use a UTV to perform a line inspection on a right-of-way, allowing the operator to focus on driving safety and terrain while the passenger focuses on a thorough inspection. Naturally, more difficult jobs that require additional gear and more people favor larger vehicles with greater capacity, but larger vehicles also can be more difficult to maneuver and cause damage to sensitive environments.
If inclement weather is in the forecast and it’s been decided that an ATV or UTV will be used on a job site, it’s important for the operator and any passengers to dress appropriately and choose a vehicle with a cab. Harsh weather also might affect the impact the vehicle has on the terrain, so that’s something to take into consideration prior to use. Aggressive, knobby tires are great for staying on the move, but they can cause unnecessary damage to sensitive vegetation, muddy trails, and trails that cross fragile streams or rivers. Further, it’s important to account for rocky, sandy, narrow and snowy conditions along the way. All of these considerations should be addressed during operator training.
Proper operator training is critical for all equipment used in the work setting. In the case of ATVs and UTVs, many people have recreational experience with off-road vehicles, but they still must learn the limitations and capabilities of each specific vehicle in service.
Developing and delivering effective training is a delicate balance of art and science, one that is crafted with years of experience. So, delivery of all training material must be completed by a qualified trainer; this can be an in-house trainer employed by your company or a reputable third party. Instructors can be qualified based on their advanced knowledge in a particular field or through a program of continued educational instruction in the area they intend to teach. As a best practice, it is recommended to divide training into separate classroom and field portions covering vehicle theory and hands-on practical skills.
The lecture-based portion of training should focus on rules, regulations and company policy that pertain to the class of vehicles in use. In particular, it is critical to clearly cover all the safety equipment required to safely operate the ATV or UTV, including personal protective equipment such as helmets, gloves, eye protection, boots and clothing. Additionally, the lecture-based portion of training is the appropriate time to show trainees photos of the vehicle controls they’ll be working with; explain what each knob, switch, pedal and lever does and why; describe what to look for when conducting a vehicle inspection; and provide examples of what field repairs may be required.
When students move to the hands-on portion of training, they should be taught how to conduct a pre-trip vehicle inspection, identify likely points of mechanical failure and perform mild maintenance, such as replacing belts or changing a flat tire. Because ATVs and UTVs are small and nimble machines that can quickly maneuver into hazardous situations, a successful instructor also should demonstrate to trainees how to prevent a vehicle from becoming stuck in various ground conditions, teach students what to do if their vehicle does become stuck and show them how to properly conduct a vehicle recovery with the equipment that they have available. The trainer also should explain what steps to take if a vehicle suffers a mechanical failure.
Once trainees have learned about basic vehicle operation and controls, that should be followed by detailed oversight as students perform various exercises designed to demonstrate their ability to safely interpret the terrain and operate their vehicle. Only after students have successfully demonstrated proficiency at operating their vehicle should they be allowed to move on to more advanced terrain that closely matches where they intend to work.
It is worth repeating that all training provided should be specific to the vehicles to be used on the job site. With new and more capable machines being released all the time, it is critical that each operator periodically demonstrates their skills. Industry standards recommend an annual skills demonstration, with most certified training programs requiring retraining and requalification every two years.
Machine Capabilities and Limitations
When making the choice to purchase and use ATVs and UTVs in an industrial setting, it’s important to select the appropriate machine or machines. It can be tempting to choose the fancy new rig with over 20 inches of wheel travel and a giant turbo, but first it’s necessary to understand the scope of work to be performed, where the machine will be used and the safety features included.
Something else to be aware of is that many companies have set limits on the maximum hill angles that can be safely ascended, descended and traversed. Operators must be trained on any such policy and also be made aware that they must never exceed the manufacturer’s limitations on their machine, particularly with regard to hills climbed, side hills traversed and weight capacities.
If you work for a contractor, you should know that many utilities will require specific vehicle information from you before they allow it to be used on their sites. This can include the number of workers that can be transported, determined by the number of seat belts on the machine or a sticker that clearly designates the maximum number of users; a list of all safety features present from the factory and any safety equipment added; cargo capacity; and if the machine has engineered controls limiting speed, brightly colored three-point seat belt assemblies, and seat belt interlocking systems, which prevent engine ignition unless the seat belt is securely engaged.
All ATVs and UTVs used at a job site will likely be required to have a rollover protection system, which must be intact, structurally sound and certified. There also has been a recent trend to equip these vehicles with full cabs, including HVAC controls, to keep the operator and any passengers comfortable year-round and protected from the elements. If a cab is installed, this can bring with it a longer list of safety inspection points due to doors, latches, wipers, defrost units and an affected center of gravity. If nothing else, almost all UTVs are required to have partial doors or nets that are designed to prevent occupants from being ejected onto rough terrain.
UTVs and ATVs are quickly becoming go-to machines for traveling across difficult terrain to access work sites. These machines become more capable and safer as they evolve each year. But in choosing to use them, you will need to develop a plan that includes appropriate operator training, and you may want to collaborate with your organization’s fleet department to offer input on the specification process. Implementing ATVs and UTVs into your workflow requires much time and effort; however, when it’s done well, you can take comfort in knowing your workers will be able to use these machines safely and correctly.
About the Authors: Ty Fenton is the general manager of Safety One Training, the nation’s leader in backcountry vehicle operation and fall protection training. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Chuck Kevwitch is a lead instructor and the contracts manager for Safety One Training. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.