Voice of Experience: When Training New Workers, Be Vigilant
In today’s electric utility environment, there are many training demands and opportunities due to new and inexperienced employees entering the workforce as older, more experienced workers continue to retire. New employees entering the field require – and are hungry for – information and hands-on experience, and they’re excited by the chance to engage in line work. To rubber-glove energized primaries and perform bare-hand transmission work is fascinating to younger workers and often provides them with an indescribable level of satisfaction and accomplishment. Ours is an exciting occupation, to say the least.
And yet ours also is an occupation that can be riddled with hazards. That’s why all of our employees must be given a strong foundation of skills training for their own protection. In our industry, many consider basic line skills training to be the most important type of training workers can receive, and I agree.
Considering recent annual accident totals reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is great reason for employers to be vigilant about the training of their workers. The electric utility industry suffered more than 40 fatalities in 2017 alone. Some of those deaths occurred because of falls and vehicle accidents, but a great number more occurred when an unprotected part of a worker’s body made contact with an energized conductor or piece of equipment. Phase-to-ground contacts that resulted in severe burns also were reported about once per week. These types of incidents are almost always preventable, so why do they continue to occur? Does it have something to do with training or human performance? Is there something else going on?
In fact, a number of post-accident investigations have revealed that employees were taught the fundamentals of how to perform line work, but that training did not necessarily include the reasons why they should perform the work at a level that exceeds minimum regulatory requirements. This is a serious omission. Employees must be trained to understand the difference between the minimum that is required of them by law versus the additional measures they should take for their own safety and the safety of those around them. If workers are only taught how to do the very basics – and if they are taught those basics but aren’t sure why they should use them – that can lead to dangerous situations when those individuals are sent to work on jobs alone or where they will have little supervision. Training workers so that they have a complete understanding of why they should perform tasks in a specific way decreases the amount of unnecessary risk acceptance by employees and increases the possibility that they will work safely.
Human Performance Training
Keep in mind, however, that basic line skills training isn’t the only type of training that is beneficial to employees. That’s because incidents and injuries also are prone to occur, for instance, when employees get distracted, or when worker focus shifts to production rather than safety, or when an individual makes the choice not to use the work procedures he has been taught.
Post-accident interviews with victims indicate that numerous incidents were not caused by forgetting to use safe work practices. The victims had been trained on how and why to do the work. Instead, it was personal choices that led to the incidents and injuries, simple decisions that the tasks to be performed could be completed faster by not using the training received. A lineworker’s overconfidence and overestimation of his ability to recognize hazards and control the situation can lead to unexpected and unplanned situations. Even statements viewed on social media pages – such as “learn to control your tails” as opposed to installing proper cover-up – can have some influence over a worker’s thought processes on the job.
Examples such as these are why human performance training, in addition to technical training, is critical to a safe work environment. This type of training, which is valuable not just for new employees but for employees at all levels of a company, helps trainees better understand why people make mistakes and what can be done to prevent them in the future. While we all know that experience is the master teacher, and that the bad decisions we’ve made on the job sometimes have taught us some of our most important lessons, wouldn’t it be great if new employees didn’t have to repeat our same errors?
In essence, the training that is needed for newer employees must be carefully planned so that they are trained to perform above and beyond the basics that are required by regulations, and so they understand human error and how to mitigate it. Some of the world’s most advanced training for electrical lineworkers and technicians is currently being delivered by IBEW, which has a first-rate entry-level apprenticeship training program. Other professional training centers, such as Northwest Lineman College and Southeast Lineman Training Center, also offer high-quality apprentice lineworker training, and the apprenticeship programs used by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the American Public Power Association are excellent. In addition, major electrical contractors and some municipals are now using nationally recognized apprenticeship programs, and a slew of vocational and technical schools are offering certificates or degrees in entry-level topics and skills being sought after by electrical utility employers. Simply put, today’s training offerings are the best they ever have been.
While there are many third-party training options available, the industry still relies on a great deal of on-the-job training (OJT), which works as well today as it did 50 years ago when I started in the industry. If you are putting together an in-house OJT curriculum, it can be quite helpful to review the causes of past accidents. A great number of accidents have pointed to the following contributory or root causes: violation of minimum approach; lack of or failure to install properly rated distribution cover-up; erroneous switching and tagging procedures; and improper system grounding to achieve an equipotential work zone. Incorporating these topics into your training program can help employees recognize and mitigate these hazards in the field.
As you likely are aware, all OJT is not the same. The quality of the training depends on the apprentice’s training provider or mentor. The concern with some OJT is that the company’s safety culture may not be the focal point of the training. OJT also can sometimes reverse formal training methods that were taught to new employees in a structured apprenticeship program. Be aware of this if OJT is used at your company, or if you are thinking of incorporating it into your program.
Taking the Lead
As lineworkers continue to retire from the industry, younger generations are beginning to take the lead, which means that their training is of paramount importance. Putting in the time and effort to make the best decisions regarding employee training will do much to keep your crews safe.
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 is also an affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Center OSHA Outreach in Atlanta. For more information, visit www.electricutilitysafety.com.