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Control High-Energy Hazards to Help Reduce Serious Injuries and Fatalities

Reducing and eliminating serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) remains a challenge throughout the utility industry. The work required to generate, transmit and distribute electricity and gas often places workers near hazards that cannot be completely eliminated. Workers must be able to safely perform essential work without contacting or exposing themselves to sources of high energy.

Many utilities and contractor companies are targeting SIFs through energy-based hazard recognition programs. One example is the Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Safety Classification and Learning (SCL) Model (see for more). Energy-based programs can expand the ability of frontline workers, supervisors and safety professionals to recognize hazards that are likely to cause a SIF. An energy wheel is often used to identify various forms of energy that may be encountered wherever work is performed. Protections and controls are then implemented to insulate, isolate or separate workers from the high-energy source. The most effective controls provide protection even when human error or equipment failure contributes to an event.

What is considered “high energy”?

EEI’s SCL Model defines the high-energy threshold as the point when physical energy reaches or exceeds 500 foot-pounds. If a worker has contact with that amount of energy, a SIF is the most likely outcome. High energy may present itself in many forms and goes beyond electrical energy. Several high-energy hazards may be encountered before leaving the material yard or arriving at the job site. Workers should identify all possible sources of high energy by discussing the work to be performed, determining how the crew members will protect themselves and questioning if those protections will be enough.

Let’s review some of the high-energy sources that account for the largest numbers of SIFs, plus some guidance on how to protect yourself from a serious injury or fatality.

Falls from Height 

Falling from a height as short as 4 feet exceeds 500 foot-pounds of energy. Falls from fixed and portable ladders can result in broken legs, wrists and ankles. The same serious injuries occur or have the potential to occur when a worker intentionally jumps from the rear deck of a material handler, digger derrick, trailer or warehouse dock. Always use fall protection when required, and maintain three points of contact when entering or exiting trucks and when walking on vehicle catwalks. Use fixed ladders, ramps, steps and handrails to safely descend from walking and working surfaces.

Struck-By Incidents

Objects that roll, slide, swing, fall, recoil or suddenly move have the potential to cause a SIF. Utility poles, transformers and materials that require a mechanical lift exceed the high-energy threshold. Unexpected movement of as little as 1 foot with contact to a worker will likely produce a SIF. Objects under tension, such as wire or winch cable, can suddenly recoil and transfer high energy to anyone in their path. Barricade drop zones and the line of fire to keep workers out of the danger zone.

Electrical Contact and Arc Flash 

The safest way to perform electrical work is de-energizing, isolating, tagging, and locking out or grounding. But many times, especially in electrical distribution work, de-energizing may not be an option. Plan your work and discuss what could occur if a mistake is made. Think about your body positioning if equipment were to fail. Use layers of protection to separate yourself from the electrical hazard; these include guards, insulating materials and hot sticks. In addition, consider protection from induced voltage. Cover all differences of electrical potential and wear all electrical PPE when required.

Vehicle and Equipment Accidents 

For vehicle occupants, the high-energy threshold is met when a vehicle’s speed reaches 30 mph. Always wear a seat belt and don’t perform other tasks while driving, such as texting. Include margins for human error. Keep a safe distance when following vehicles and try to maintain the ability to move into a clear space to avoid a collision. For workers who may be working near a roadway, the high-energy threshold is reached when equipment or vehicles are in motion at any speed. Always follow your state’s temporary traffic control standard when working on or near a roadway.


Our entire industry is challenged to reduce and eliminate serious injuries and fatalities. Frontline workers, supervisors and safety professionals can help to reduce and eliminate SIFs by identifying:

  • Which high-energy hazards can cause a serious injury or fatality.
  • Which protections will be used.
  • If those protections will be enough if someone makes a mistake.

About the Author: Brian Sambuco, M.S., CSP, CUSP, is a lead health and safety specialist for Duke Energy in Charlotte, North Carolina. He previously served as a transmission and distribution line technician and operations supervisor. Reach him at

Brian Sambuco, M.S., CSP, CUSP

Brian Sambuco, M.S., CSP, CUSP