Overhead Utility Hazards: Look Up and Live
“Look Up and Live” is a catchphrase used by a utility provider that I know of to educate the public about how to identify overhead utility hazards. However, the phrase isn’t just useful for members of the public. Given the number of overhead incidents that have occurred on utility-related jobs, “Look Up and Live” is a phrase that should be used by all utility companies and workers in order to encourage awareness of overhead hazards. In this month’s Tailgate, I will walk you through an overhead incident that recently occurred and discuss what can be done to avoid similar incidents in the future.
The Excavator Incident
A utility crew working in a remote mountainous location used a dozer to clear ice and snow that were obstructing an access road. After completing the task, the crew began moving a large piece of equipment – an exca-drill – in order to begin drilling foundation holes. While moving the drill down the access road, the edge of the road gave way and slid down an embankment. When this happened, the operator swung the boom around to the lower side, using it as a support leg to keep the drill from turning over.
The foreman then assessed the situation and decided to hook the dozer to the drill to give it extra support. The crew tried to pull the drill back onto a more stable section of the road, but the dozer could not pull it back because the weight of the drill was more than the dozer could safely handle. The foreman then called another foreman who was on a nearby job and asked him to find an excavator to assist in pulling the drill.
After picking up the excavator and unloading it at the start of the access road, the operator, followed by the foreman in a pickup truck, began driving the excavator in to help relieve the drill. While driving down the access road, the knuckle of the excavator hit a 20-pair telephone cable, causing it to break and jar the utility poles to which it was attached. This also caused the primary and neutral conductors on the single-phase line to touch, resulting in an outage. Not only were the communication and electric utility lines damaged, but this was also a situation that very likely could have caused the excavator to become energized, created dangerous step and touch potential, and possibly resulted in serious injury or death.
Room for Improvement
As a utility industry, we have done a great job of training our employees to ensure that underground and buried hazards are identified and mitigated before performing any excavation or digging work. In a typical utility, crews are taught to request locates or BUDs for buried utilities, to ensure that locate markings are visible and current, and then to use hand or air methods to dig if the located utilities are within the specified distance of the excavation. Crews are also trained to identify any additional underground hazards while digging, and to stop work to determine the type, owner and route of any unmarked utilities.
In the incident described above, the crew members had received their locates/BUDs in a very remote area to ensure that no underground utility hazards were present. However, they failed to recognize an overhead hazard on an access road that they had traveled approximately 20 times when the incident occurred. Not only that, but they had already moved a couple of pieces of heavy equipment into the area.
Pre-Work Planning and Hazard Mitigation
When we are training workers about the importance of locating buried utilities and other possible hazards, let’s make sure that we also cover the importance of locating and recognizing overhead hazards. Pre-work planning and work site inspection are critical. For example, in the excavator incident discussed earlier, the crew should have pre-inspected the access road – as well as any other access roads they were planning to travel – before bringing any equipment onto the site.
Additionally, overhead hazards need to be identified and discussed before work begins and documented on written pre-job briefings. Job and task hazard analyses are excellent ways to identify, discuss and document overhead hazards and mitigation steps. In any situation where overhead hazards are present, there are a variety of mitigation steps that should be followed. Warning signs should be placed at each site below the overhead utility or hazard where ground workers and equipment operators can observe them. When moving equipment in these areas, the utility lines should be guarded, and a spotter who has direct communication with the operator should be in place to assure the necessary clearance is maintained as the equipment travels beneath the utility lines or hazard. In some situations it may be necessary to mitigate a hazard by de-energizing an electric circuit for the work duration, rerouting a utility line away from the work area or possibly replacing existing overhead electric lines with underground electric cables.
By identifying the overhead hazards and then using a combination of the mitigation steps above, as well as any additional steps deemed necessary by the crew, the previously discussed excavator incident could have been prevented. Thankfully no one was hurt during this incident, but that might not always be the case, so once again I urge you to always look up and live.
About the Author: Clifford Carroll, CUSP, is a safety and training coordinator at Pike Electric LLC and an OSHA-authorized outreach trainer. He has more than 35 years of utility industry experience, including 10 years in the safety field.