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Fundamentals of Substation Rescue Plans


I’ve worked in substations for most of my adult life, and I’ve picked up a few things along the way. Some were the result of good experiences, while others I learned through less than ideal circumstances. In this article, I want to share with you what I learned from my first experience with confined space rescue in a substation.

It was mid-August of 1983 in Florida and the outside temperature was in the high 90s. Inside the 69/13-kV transformer, the temperature was well over 100 degrees. Two journeymen were conducting an inspection inside the transformer when they discovered a problem in the winding. They called the lead man in to take a look. One of the journeymen climbed out of the transformer and the lead man climbed down to the bottom. He was in there for about 20 minutes, and as he began to climb out, his leg got stuck and he soon became claustrophobic and panicky.

At that time there was no formal rescue gear to speak of, so we had to improvise a way to get the lead man out. First we tried a manila rope, which shredded on the sharp core of the transformer. Next we used a nylon rope and covered the transformer core with a rubber blanket. To make a long story short, it took about an hour and 15 minutes to get the lead man out of the transformer. Fortunately, the situation was not a life-threatening emergency or it would have been a body recovery instead of a rescue.

That day taught everyone involved a valuable lesson: Improvised rescue is never a good idea. Substation work requires well-developed rescue programs so that if and when the time comes, employees know what to do and can quickly execute rescue efforts.

All substation rescue plans should include an accurate hazard assessment, entry guidelines and the rescue plan itself, including the equipment to be used. The main areas of substation rescue are confined space (transformers, circuit breakers and vaults); structure rescue (switch racks, isolations switches and towers); and energized work (electrical cabinets). Every company is different, so the focus will depend on how the work is done as well as the type of equipment available. One thing that is not different, however, is that each rescue plan must be practiced for both training value and to identify and correct any problems with the plan.

Hazard Assessments
Hazard assessments can range from very simple to quite complex. For instance, a simple hazard assessment occurs when you step into a restaurant, see a yellow sign that reads “Caution: Wet Floor” and choose to walk a bit more carefully.

Confined Space
A confined space hazard assessment, on the other hand, is more complex. The best practice for transformer and circuit breaker assessments is to use the OSHA guidelines for permit-required confined spaces, which are found at 29 CFR 1910.146 and 1910.146 Appendix A. As part of your assessment, identify and remove all hazards so the space can be reclassified as a non-permit confined space (see 1910.146(c)(7)).

What if an employee becomes hurt or injured inside of a transformer or on a switch because of other issues, such as heat exhaustion? This is when training is especially important; if employees are untrained and ill-equipped, a minor problem could turn into a critical one. Rescue reassessment is also crucial in these situations. During a hazard reassessment, the following questions should be asked and answered:
• What has changed from the original assessment? Are there any new hazards present?
• Is the hurt or injured employee conscious or unconscious?
• Does the rescue plan need to be activated?

A hazard assessment for a structure, switch rack or tower can also be somewhat complex. This is when your pre-job hazard assessments guide you to evaluate and remove hazards before work is started. Then, if an emergency medical situation occurs, a rescue reassessment must be performed by asking the same questions posed in the confined space hazard assessment: What has changed from the original assessment? Are there any new hazards present? Is the hurt or injured employee conscious or unconscious? Does the rescue plan need to be activated?

Energized Equipment
There are several places in which a rescue assessment for energized equipment might come into play. For example, maybe you’re changing out a 480-volt contactor or circuit breaker on a generation station unit transformer when a medical emergency occurs. Your original pre-job briefing covered as much as possible in terms of identifying and mitigating the physical characteristics of electricity. But what happens if someone becomes energized for another reason? What about a battery room explosion? When performing a rescue reassessment related to energized equipment, the following questions should be asked:
• What has changed from the original assessment? Are there any new hazards present?
• How will you get the employee out of the circuit? Will you turn off the circuit or use a rescue device? Note: There are multiple rescue devices available – do not use a 2×4 or flying tackle.
• Is the employee accessible via a ladder or other means?
• Does the rescue plan need to be activated?

Scene Entry Guidelines
Entry guidelines during a rescue situation are relatively simple – you should be reassessing for any hazards. When you practice various rescue scenarios, you learn to make competent decisions faster. Substation personnel are aware of the hazards associated with the work, so with the right training and equipment, they are typically the right people to perform rescues in a timely manner.

Rescue training and practice are necessary to combat the natural human instinct to dive into an emergency situation without thinking. They are both integral parts of a well-designed rescue plan. Once employees have been properly trained – including learning to reassess the environment for hazards – they should be ready to remove injured substation workers when an incident occurs, without causing harm to themselves or other employees.

But a utility’s trained and equipped crew members are not the only individuals qualified to rescue substation employees. There are two other options: a contracted rescue team or a fire department’s heavy-rescue/hazardous incident team.

Keep in mind, however, that OSHA’s expectation is that you have cleared all potential hazards and, if something happens, you will be able to rescue your own people. The average fire department that responds to 911 calls is not equipped to perform specialized rescues. And today, due to budget cuts, fire department heavy-rescue teams are decreasing in number. That’s primarily because training and equipment for this type of rescue is expensive. So, suppose the closest rescue team is a volunteer fire department – do you think they are trained and equipped for substation rescue? It’s likely they aren’t, which makes the development and implementation of a substation rescue plan for your utility that much more vital.

Let’s say we’ve removed all the hazards from the job site and reclassified the area as a non-permit confined space. Fall protection and rescue equipment are in place. What else might occur that would necessitate a rescue? Some of the most common emergency situations are medical in nature, including heart attacks, strokes and seizures; injuries inside transformers or steel structures, such as a broken leg, head trauma or a cut hand; heat exhaustion; allergic reactions to medication; and insect or animal bites.

Getting someone out of a confined space to provide even first aid or CPR can mean the difference between life and death in some instances. And as utility safety professionals, we are not the type to merely do the bare minimum when it comes to safety. OSHA regulations are the minimum safety requirements. Do we really want to teach future generations only about regulations, or do we want to teach them to be prepared and ready to conduct a rescue? Consider this scenario: A co-worker is involved in a confined space incident that, initially, is not a threat to his life. However, due to the time it takes to get the employee proper medical assistance, the situation turns fatal. What will you say when your co-worker’s spouse asks why the company didn’t have a plan in place to more quickly rescue her husband? In short, do the right thing by designing a rescue plan if you don’t already have one, and practice it with your employees until everyone knows what to do when an emergency occurs. Substations are generally located in remote areas, so it’s best to train and equip substation crews to perform rescues. With the right equipment and practice, it is possible to rescue co-workers in a timely manner. Once they’ve been rescued, the regular fire rescue squad can attend to them.

Tools, Equipment and Training
Most safety equipment manufacturers offer a variety of tools to perform substation rescues. The design of confined space rescue equipment accommodates both vertical and horizontal rescues. That being said, transformer rescue is difficult and requires a lot of practice in order for employees to become proficient.

I have seen many improvised items used for rescue – a makeshift tripod with a boat winch, a four-part rope (block and tackle) and even a plan to use a boom truck to winch someone out of a space. In my experience, I can say with confidence that using improvised rescue equipment will not help you rescue someone in a timely manner, and it may even increase the potential for injuries.

Here’s something to think about: What’s your plan for rescuing someone from a conservator tank given that the entry into the side of the tank is 15 feet in the air?

As you would expect, there are a number of different rescue scenarios because there are a variety of different situations that occur in substation work. There are also several different rescue units for transformers and circuit breakers. Rescue equipment for structures can be obtained to quickly and safely bring someone down. Even electrical rescue equipment is available, simple to use and relatively inexpensive. Training is offered for all types of equipment, and I want to reiterate that practice improves skill. Both practice and repetitive training will cut rescue time considerably and possibly save lives. This is the reason why utility, military and fire rescue workers practice on a regular basis – practice makes perfect.

I recently interviewed Captain Clint Roberts of Florida’s Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. During our conversation, I asked what his heavy-rescue team will do when called upon to perform a substation rescue. Roberts said that after they arrive on the scene, the team will first make a full and complete assessment of all hazards. On average, this takes more than just a few minutes to complete, and on some scenes it can last over an hour. The team will start from the beginning and work through the entire assessment process before allowing any of their personnel to enter the scene. Their process covers lockout/tagout equipment, testing atmospheric conditions and assessing fall hazards and any other potential hazards. The team will then set up their rescue equipment, which takes more time. Why won’t they use your tripod? History has taught them not to rely on unfamiliar rescue equipment at the scene. Captain Roberts said that, unfortunately, many times the fire rescue team ends up conducting a body recovery.

By the way, if your plan is to rely on a third-party rescue team, OSHA requires that you pre-plan and practice rescue with that third party (see 1910.146(k)(1)(v)).

Here’s another interesting bit of information: Whenever heavy-rescue teams are called, it is highly likely OSHA will show up as well. Did you know that many OSHA offices monitor news channels? News personnel use scanners, go to the scene when a heavy-rescue team is called and then often call OSHA to get additional information about the situation. This then prompts OSHA to respond to the scene. Do you really want to refuse OSHA entry in this situation?

In conclusion, if your company has employees who work in substations, it’s imperative that a well-developed rescue plan is in place and that workers have practiced it often enough to know what to do in the event of an emergency. When someone’s life is on the line, there is no time to waste.

About the Author: R. Scott Young, CUSP, has worked in the power industry since 1978. He is a certified substation and circuit breaker technician. Young owns the Industrial Safety Institute ( and travels worldwide conducting electrical, technical and safety training programs. He can be reached at

Worksite Safety, Safety Management