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Work-Site Safety: Get in on the Ground Level

When we think of line work, our thoughts often go directly to the action overhead that’s performed in hooks or from buckets. Upon further consideration, however, we realize a great deal of line work takes place at ground level. That’s also where many hazards present themselves and where we often assign our least experienced workers. In this installation of “Tailgate Topics,” let’s take a closer look at these ground-level hazards as well as some ways we can identify and mitigate them.

Walking/Working Surfaces
In response to injuries resulting from trips, slips and falls, OSHA recently released new rules for walking/working surfaces. Along with falls from higher elevations, falls from working surfaces (i.e., ground level) are the leading cause of workplace injuries and deaths. These types of injuries can be avoided by keeping walking/working surfaces clear of trip hazards, such as tools, materials, ice, snow and workplace debris. Be aware that fallen snow or leaves can obscure obstacles like open excavations and uneven surfaces. In addition, be mindful that ice or snow on plywood or other discarded building materials can be extremely slippery. 

Step and Touch Potential
There are several scenarios in which structures – including poles, portable grounds, line trucks, digger derricks and nearby fences – and the work-site ground itself can become energized. These voltages can be lethal if our bodies come in contact with surfaces that are at different potentials. Such voltage gradients, which result from impedance or resistance, can exist between the ground and touchable surfaces, such as trucks (touch potential), or across even short distances on the ground (step potential.) To minimize the risks associated with step and touch potential, avoid leaning against poles, fences and vehicles. Touch or board vehicles only as required and as instructed by the crew leader. Avoid bounding strides within the work site. While shuffling steps are only required when a known step potential condition exists, it is a good daily practice to take normal, short steps. 

Falling Objects
When much of the action is taking place overhead, there is a risk of being struck by a falling tool or piece of material. Establish and mark out a drop zone, and stay out of it. If someone must enter the drop zone, stop work above until the zone is clear. 

Moving Equipment
Extending truck jacks, swinging booms and even slow-moving trucks can create serious risk for caught-between or struck-by injuries. Be diligent and announce your intentions clearly and loudly when you are working around moving equipment. Plan equipment movements and use spotters. 

Vehicles passing by the job site are a constant hazard when our work puts us in or alongside the road. This is everyone’s responsibility – not just those assigned to flagging. Have an effective warning system and, where practical, an unobstructed escape route away from traffic. 

Whether they are curious about the work or just passing by, uninformed people will walk into hazardous work-site areas. They don’t just endanger themselves; they are a distraction to ground crews, raising risk. When this occurs, stop work if it is safe to do so, and then politely but firmly instruct those individuals to leave the site. Take a moment to explain that you are concerned for their safety, if the task allows. 

The demobilization process is one of the most vulnerable phases of a job. Multiple pieces of equipment are being moved, traffic signs are being taken down and worker focus has been redirected. There should be a discussion and plan for the systematic breakdown of the job. This also may be a good opportunity to debrief and address any issues while the job is fresh in everyone’s mind. A crew member designated as the “last person out” should ensure all other vehicles depart safely. 

Three General Practices
We have reviewed many of the hazards that can exist on the ground level of our work sites, and there may be a number of others, depending on the job. While we briefly discussed possible barriers to specific hazards, let’s close with these three general practices that we also can apply to control hazards that arise.

Focus and Scan Techniques
When first arriving on a job, a good rule of thumb is that 80% of your attention should be directed toward scanning the work site for potential hazards. The remaining 20% can be spent beginning to formulate a mitigation plan. Then, once work begins, at least 80% of your attention should be focused on the task at hand. This leaves time to briefly but continuously scan the site to see if any hazards are developing or changing. If they are, briefly stop work and address the risk. 

Situational Awareness
It is essential that everyone on a work site have awareness of where they are standing, walking, stepping back or reaching. Each worker should always be on alert for anything moving within the work zone (e.g., booms, jacks, trucks and conductors).

Tasks and actions must be clearly communicated to each member of the crew, beginning with the tailboard and continuing through completion of the job. Statements such as “Jacks going down!” or “We’re going to move truck 123 back 10 feet!” should be part of the ongoing dialogue throughout the shift. Such statements should be verbally acknowledged to ensure mutual understanding.

About the Author: Bob Dunderdale, CUSP, serves as a line foreman for Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. in New York.

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