Voice of Experience: Accurate Utility Locates are Critical to Crew Safety
Each time I present an OSHA training class to electric utility workers, the topic of utility locates arises. That’s because, other than utility locates being a legal requirement in most states, it is critical for line crews to have up-to-date locates for their own safety. When locates are not in place, it’s more than just a possibility that an employer will face OSHA citations and other legal liabilities in the event of an employee’s injury or death.
In most areas throughout the U.S., calling 811 will connect you with someone who can help you get applicable locates to ensure the safety and legality of your digging operation. Whether the job is to trench, backhoe or set a pole, locates must be made for the dates you will be working so that workers are safe and the employer can avoid potential legal action against them.
In the remainder of this article, I’m going to share two examples I’m aware of in which locates weren’t properly marked, resulting in property damage and one fatality. None of the errors was made intentionally, and each time the crews were simply trying to be productive for their respective companies. Nonetheless, the incidents and injuries occurred.
The first story I want to share is a personal account of an event that occurred when I was working as a lead lineman on a UD crew. I was responsible for the event and learned a huge lesson from it. My crew had been tasked with installing the UD – direct buried, not in conduit – at a huge apartment complex. There was nothing unusual about the job, and we had completed several similar projects in the past.
All the locates had been called in for the sections where we were working. A few days prior to the event, the crew was trenching in cable; we normally installed about 1,500 to 2,000 feet of cable a day. The crew was in the midspan of two transformers at the end of that particular day. Enough cable had been pulled off and rolled up, a ground rod was installed, and the primary cable was taped to the ground rod and flagged with red ribbon for safety.
The next day, my crew was pulled off that job and sent to perform a rush job that had to be completed to meet a customer promise. It took almost two days to complete the rush job. So, three days later, our crew went back to the apartment complex to continue installing the primary. Everything at the site appeared almost exactly as we had left it a few days earlier. The only visible sign of activity was ground that had been disturbed near the location of the primary cable stub-up. There were no new locate paint marks anywhere. The truck driver dropped the chain in the ditch while the primary was rolled back to the transformer location.
Trenching was underway and about 10 to 15 feet from the primary stub-out when the crew and I heard the sound of a large gas main being cut. The equipment operator shut off the trencher and everyone vacated the immediate area. We notified the construction company supervisor and evacuated all the nearby, nearly completed apartment buildings. Thankfully, no fire erupted and no one sustained any injuries. The gas company showed up on the scene in moments, isolated the gas main and made the repairs without issue, other than some frazzled nerves. Our crew had not been made aware that, while we were off-site for three days, a gas company contractor had installed a 3-inch gas main and crossed directly in front of our primary stub-out. The pipe had been pressurized the day before. The locates were good for the rest of the week, but the gas company did not flag or paint the new main they had just installed. Our lesson learned: When you are not on the scene of a job site for an extended period of time, call in for new locates.
The second accident I’m going to share with you had a much worse ending than the one I described above. This one involved a three-man overhead line crew. The task was to change three 40-foot poles on a single-phase 14.4-kV primary in a subdivision to 45-foot poles for additional clearance over the road for telephone and cable television lines. Locates were called in by the person in charge of the work. The crew loaded up three 45-foot Class 4 poles and headed to the job site.
Two of the poles were changed out that morning without incident. The crew then pulled up to the location of the third pole, which was a short drive down the street where no other utility locates nor any white paint was visible to indicate proposed construction. The crew had a short conversation and decided to disconnect the telephone and television cables and tie them to a nearby tree. The lineman in charge of the crew ascended in a bucket, removed the neutral conductor for the shackle on the pole and let it float free. He then went to the top of the pole and, after covering the primary conductor, untied the #2 ACSR 14.4-kV primary and placed it in the roller head of the material-handling boom to be held in the clear. Next, the lineman backed up a few feet to allow the line truck to remove the 40-foot pole. After the pole was removed on the trailer, the crew used a digging spoon and spade to chip out the existing hole, which would allow the larger butt of the 45-foot pole to be installed. After chipping about 4 feet deep, the crew placed the auger in the hole to clean out loose dirt so that there was 6 feet of depth in which to set the new pole.
When the auger was placed in the hole and began to turn, it punctured a 4-inch gas main. The crew on the ground immediately shut off the line truck and moved into the clear. As gas drifted up, the lineman in the bucket attempted to back farther away from it. While he was moving controls, the conductor shifted the roller head just enough to create a static spark, which ignited the fumes at elevation. The fire then ignited on the ground and the gas main exploded. Flames reached up and burned the bucket as well as half of the boom. The lineman jumped from the bucket, but flames burned his fall protection and he fell to the ground. The other two crew members ran into the fire to pull the lineman into the clear. Unfortunately, the damage had been done and he passed away shortly afterward.
Based on the two examples I shared above, you can see how critical it is to crew safety that all locates always be properly marked before work begins. I was lucky that no one on my team got hurt when we hit a gas main that day. Others haven’t been so fortunate. Please learn from these experiences so that you and your co-workers can go home safely after every shift.
About the Author: Danny Raines, CUSP, safety consultant, distribution and transmission, retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and opened Raines Utility Safety Solutions LLC, providing compliance training, risk assessments and safety observation programs. He also is an affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Center OSHA Outreach in Atlanta.