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The Importance of Proper Coverup: Two Real-Life Tales

Very early on in my career as a lineman, I was involved in two events that taught me some important lessons about proper coverup and how critical it is to worker safety. Both events occurred between 1972 and 1973. I was working on a big line crew, and while there were different crew foremen, there was one foreman in particular who we all thought was one of the best to work for. His name was John Lane, and he’d been a lineman before I started with the company in 1967. I worked with him as an apprentice on a cut-in truck that he referred to as “South Macon Power and Light.” John was the most likable guy you could ever meet. We hit it off and always worked well together.

The First Event
Ed Lunsford and I were the linemen on John’s crew. We had a series of apprentices and helpers come and go in the three years or so that I was on that crew, which was known as the “Bull Gang” because John would ask for – and get – the toughest jobs of all. Once, we reconductored a double circuit of 4/0 copper to one circuit of 750 MCM out of the South Macon substation down off 7th Street in Macon, Georgia. One of the lessons I learned on that job was to never use black plastic tape to hold a jumper in place, which I had done so I could use a set of ratchet bolt cutters to cut a conductor. We had the new 750 pulled in, and I taped the conductor to a down guy to hold it in place until I cut the wire. As it turns out, tape will not properly hold a conductor under that much strain, or I didn’t wrap it enough. The tape turned loose when I cut the wire, and the strain brought the tail close to me – swinging freely out to the end of my cover. The grounded phase locked out the breaker.

This event was so embarrassing and dangerous. Ed was on the other end, and he was the first person I thought of. Thankfully, everything worked out and we just made the breaker back hot. From then on, I started to add more cover to expand my work zone and offer protection for any other judgment errors I might make. A Salcor line hose (gut) is only 5 feet long, so I added an extra one on all the phases to give me a 10-foot-wide working area.

The Second Event
It wasn’t much more than a year later that a man named Gene Conger and I were working together, and we went in one morning to find that our job was to cut a set of gang switches in between two 1,000-MCM riser poles so that circuits could be switched to give them an alternate feed to some switching cubicles. We would have four 2500-kVA transformers in a row feeding one metering point. This was a huge customer, and reliability was always an issue because they were a 24/7 location that never shut down.

The job went smooth as silk. We cut the switch hot in a 750-MCM AAAC conductor circuit, kept the new switch jumped out, and adjusted the operations so all the blades closed and could be properly locked. Sometime between 2:30 and 3 p.m., we finished up and congratulated each other on a safe, well-done job.

As we were leaving, however, we received a call from a dispatcher about trouble with a three-phase slack span pull-off near our location; they asked if we could look at it and possibly take a little slack out of the conductors. The poles had shifted, and the conductors had gotten together in windy conditions and operated the circuit – the same circuit we had just cut the switch in on. Naturally, we said, “No problem, we will look at it.”

The pull-off was at the corner of Cochran Short Route and Weaver Road, near the GEICO office, another important customer. Upon inspecting the pole, we found a three-phase vertical pull-off to a flat horizontal dead-end. I’m not sure who engineered that one, but that is another story for another time. The problem was the roll from vertical to flat in that short 20-foot span of wire. The guys on the flat horizontal pole were incorrectly installed; the pole was leaning, not the angle of the pull-off. The phases had sagged way too close and were not far apart at all without any wind. Gene and I looked at it and then talked it over with Ed Lunsford, who was the crew supervisor that day because John Lane was on vacation. We decided that the slack span was too slack to apply rubber cover. We also determined that I would install a split blanket on the slack span insulator sitting vertical on a steel arm. Gene was to hold the phase with his hand to prevent too much vibration as I took the air wrench and loosened the nuts on the slack span clamp. We could then just slide the 1/0 primary in the clamp, take up about 6 inches of slack and tighten the clamp back up. That would keep it from cross-phasing again until we could get a switching order to switch the load, make a permanent correction to the guys and re-sag all the conductors.

Again, it was a great plan. I covered the steel arm at the base of the slack span insulator with a 36-inch-by-36-inch split blanket. I moved the wrench and socket to the clamp, which was lying inverted on top of the insulator. I eased the wrench in place and was watching Gene holding the 7.2-kV phase, so I did not notice that the corner of the steel arm was exposed. The wrench contacted the steel, and a fireball completely engulfed the top of the pole. The guys on the ground could not even see the Hi-Ranger buckets, just their upper booms as they entered the ball of fire. We also never noticed that whoever framed the horizontal dead-end pole allowed the pole ground to get under the gain on the steel arm. So, when the drill made contact, it was a direct path to neutral, and a terrible phase-to-ground flash occurred. We were five spans from the East Macon 115/12-kV substation, and we had the breaker on one shot with the reclosing switch disabled. I was told that the breaker operated one time to instantaneous lockout. There were an estimated 8k amps of fault current at the substation, and we were only 1,000 feet away. The breaker took about eight cycles to clear, but it seemed like two minutes when we were inside the ball of fire. I was wearing a non-FR cotton T-shirt that you could almost read a newspaper through and sunglasses that weren’t ANSI rated and didn’t offer any UVA or UVB protection. That was in June 1973, if I recall correctly. I can still hear the sound and feel the heat, and that was almost 50 years ago. The experience made a believer out of me about how important proper coverup really is.

A Puzzling Question
The one thing that puzzled me for years – until I met industry expert Hugh Hoagland and later started working for him after my retirement, presenting arc flash training – was why I wasn’t burned worse during the second event. I had a small second-degree burn between the cuff of my rubber glove and the bottom of the sleeve of the T-shirt I’d been wearing. I had a first-degree burn on the right side of my face, plus my retinas suffered minor burns, but the sunglasses kept the glass and metal out of my eyes. I also had porcelain fragments embedded in my chest and stomach because I received the brunt of the flash; Gene, who had been to my right, didn’t suffer much damage at all.

I learned later in my career that distance is inversely proportional to the heat and energy levels in an arc flash. The worst of the flash was not at the drill and arm but 5 feet away where the ground wire contacted the gain on the steel arm. The 8k amps of fault current vaporized the #6 copper for some distance down the pole toward the neutral. It was then that I realized the flash was far enough away – 5 to 6 feet – that I didn’t receive the maximum amount of arc flash available. If there was 8 to 10 cal at 18 feet, I only had a quarter of that because of the distance to the gain. That was bad enough, but the flash could have set my clothes on fire and seriously injured both me and Gene.

I learned many lessons the day of that second event. I had kept those memories inside my head since then, but now I am determined to share my mistakes so that we can prevent similar events from happening in the future. Part of what contributed to my lack of attention on this job was that Gene and I had just completed a very complex task with absolutely no issues. We were so focused on the obvious – the slack span – that we failed to see the bigger picture. I really believe that a lack of focus and attention to detail plays a large role in many of today’s accidents. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed for everyone’s safety.

About the Author: Danny Raines, CUSP, is an author, an OSHA-authorized trainer, and a transmission and distribution safety consultant who retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and operated Raines Utility Safety Solutions LLC for nearly 15 years. 

Voice of Experience, Current

Danny Raines, CUSP

Danny Raines, CUSP, is an author, an OSHA-authorized trainer, and a transmission and distribution safety consultant who retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and now operates Raines Utility Safety Solutions LLC.