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Going Into Battle

In August 2009, I was in Okinawa, Japan, preparing to depart with my unit to Afghanistan. As we were getting in our last hugs and kisses from family members, we were summoned to meet up to receive some news from our commander. Once our families were out of earshot, we were told that one of our Marines who had arrived in Afghanistan a couple weeks prior had been killed. Captain Matthew Freeman, a Marine helicopter pilot who volunteered to leave the relative safety of the flying community to advise Afghan National Army soldiers as an embedded trainer, had been shot during a firefight with the Taliban. Captain Freeman was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, a Naval Aviator and had married his high school sweetheart two weeks before deploying. As 150 of us stood there receiving the news of a fallen brother, we couldn’t help but think about Matt’s family as well as contemplate our own mortality. We had not even left Japan and we were down one Marine.

Over the next two months, three more Marines, one Navy corpsman and a soldier were killed in battle. The fallen were fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands and friends. The loss of those men affected people all around the U.S. and beyond. The daily threat to us was very real, and we knew that we had to be prepared to do our jobs. Prior to a patrol, we would check all our gear and equipment as well as conduct buddy checks to ensure our teams were ready for whatever was thrown our way. We knew we could not afford to overlook even a small detail because each patrol potentially was a life-or-death situation. We would ensure every single person on the patrol could repeat the plan back to us before departing so that anyone who was put in harm’s way would know their role. We understood that if you are not prepared for the enemy or other hazards that present themselves, you have a far greater chance of being injured – or worse.

The Link to Utility Safety
You may be asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with utility safety? Each day on construction worksites, we are essentially going into battle, potentially being confronted with many enemies and hazards. We may be working on a highway near drivers who may not be paying attention to our safety vests and barricades. We may be working in an energized substation with voltages ranging from 12 kV to 765 kV. We may be in a trench installing underground distribution or transmission lines while working near other hazards such as natural gas lines, water mains and sewer lines. We may be in a manhole with the potential for unhealthy air or traffic above, both the foot and vehicular varieties. We may be supervising a pilot who is carrying a lineman hanging by a rope off the bottom of a helicopter or setting a 340-foot transmission tower. The work we perform is hazardous, just like a battle. I would argue that most of us can name a fallen brother or sister within the utility industry, and if that is the case, we likely have pondered the events that led up to those tragedies and what could have been done differently.

So, what can we do to prevent incidents? Sustained safety performance is the result of a strong safety culture as well as individual employees doing the right thing even when nobody is looking. We need to conduct detailed planning for our tasks and mitigate hazards. We must utilize standard operating procedures and follow the plans we have developed to help ensure a safe work environment. We must look out for one another and speak up when we see something that has the potential to cause harm, no matter how minor it may appear to be. Seemingly small issues compounded over time can lead to catastrophic events. We must thoroughly inspect our equipment whether it is a 275-ton crane, a fall protection harness, a hand tool or a conductor grip. Conduct buddy checks with your co-workers and ask lots of questions. If you do not know the plan, what your task is or how to complete your task, let somebody know. An unasked question likely will receive the wrong answer. Three simple but effective questions you can ask yourself are:

  • What am I doing?
  • How can it hurt me or others?
  • How can I protect myself and others?

Many companies have robust safety programs and extremely dedicated workers. If we utilize our collective talents, there should be no reason why we cannot reach zero incidents. Each employee has the ability to make a difference, and together we can win the battle against workplace hazards and injuries.

About the Author: Brad Brill, CHST, CSHO, CUSP, is the division safety manager for Kenny Construction’s Power Division. He has been with the company for six years, managing the safety of overhead transmission line, substation and underground transmission projects. Prior to working for Kenny Construction, Brill served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a communications officer and an embedded trainer in Afghanistan.

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