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Incident Prevention Magazine

Jim Willis, CMAS, CHS-V

Rethinking Utility Security


The names Nathan Baker, Zackary Randalls, Alex Boschert and William Froelich may not be familiar to you, but their stories are tragically important for utility workers. Nathan worked for East Mississippi Electric Power Association in Clarke County, Mississippi. Zackary was employed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) in Fresno, California. And Alex and William worked for Laclede Gas Co. (LGC) near St. Louis. Except for Alex and William, who were employed by the same company, there is no evidence that these men knew each other or their paths ever crossed, so what thread binds them together? They were murdered while doing their jobs for their respective companies. In a horrible twist of fate, three of the men were killed within a week of each other in 2017.

In 2012, Nathan was making a routine collection/disconnect call at a residence when he was shot; his body was dumped in one location and his truck abandoned in another. In 2017, Zackary was sitting on the passenger side of a PG&E truck when a gunman walked up to the window and fired at him. A few days later, Alex and William were connecting a residential natural-gas line when a man, believed to be upset about his electricity bill, shot the two men and then turned the gun on himself.

Troubling Reminders
These stories are troubling reminders of a trend of violence aimed at utility workers. Utilities go to great lengths to ensure their employees have the skills and training necessary to safely do their jobs, but there has been less of a focus on utility worker security. This has to change. It is time to rethink utility security. From the front door of the office to the crews in the field, we must change how we go about protecting employees. Lives depend on it.

When you mention “utility” and “security” in the same sentence, many people think of cybersecurity or physical security of large-scale infrastructure sites. Many have heard about the cyberattack on the Ukrainian electricity grid in 2015 and know about the steps taken in the U.S. to secure the grid. Some conceptualize utility security as protection against attacks like the one on the PG&E Metcalf substation – a major transmission grid link – that occurred in 2013. Although these are critically important security issues, they are not the only ones. Safety managers and senior staff with safety and security responsibilities also should focus on improving the security posture of utilities at the local level. This means securing office complexes, warehouses and operational facilities; taking steps to target-harden local transmission and distribution; and improving the protection afforded to both office and field personnel, whether company or contractor.

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Jesse Hardy, CSP, CIT, CUSP

Overcoming the Effects of Short-Service Employees


“Are you calling his family, or do you want me to?” the superintendent asked. The project safety manager replied, “I’ll call his emergency contact after I find out where the ambulance is heading. Can you call the division manager and give her an update?” The superintendent shook his head as he surveyed the scene and said, “I’ll have to keep it short and simple for now, but tomorrow morning we’re going to need to be able to explain to everyone how a 19-year-old kid with three months of experience was able to jump into that piece of equipment and put it into an overhead power line.”

Although this is a fictional conversation, it may hit close to home for numerous industry workers, especially if your company is adapting to rapid growth by hiring new workers, also known as short-service employees (SSEs).

In its August 2017 issue, Incident Prevention published an article I wrote titled “Overcoming the Effects of Rapid Growth” (see, which described how leaders can use operational analysis and powerful communication skills to overcome the effects of rapid company growth. In this article, I’m going to expand upon that topic by shifting the focus to overcoming the effects of rapid growth through SSE onboarding, field mentoring and coaching. That’s because if the Crucial Conversations skills I wrote about in the last article made an impact, and you now have hired the additional people you need to accomplish your company’s ever-growing mission, then it’s likely you are facing a different problem: How do I get these new people up to speed so they meet our quality and safety expectations?

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Recent comment in this post
Guest — Erik Hager
Thanks for a great article - very informative, Erik [email protected] Read More
Wednesday, 01 May 2019 09:28
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Rob D. Adams, CLCP, CUSP

Scenario-Based Fall Protection Solutions


At least once in their career, nearly every safety worker in the utility business has been – or will be – faced with the need to use fall protection in an area where there is no place to tie off. In my role as a safety technician, I work with personnel in both generation and transmission business units; fall protection is needed in this line of work, but I have found that anchorage points can sometimes be few and far between. It’s a problem that clearly needs to be solved, and in this article I will share what my company has done to provide scenario-based solutions.

Scenario One
During an outage preparation meeting a couple of years ago, I was presented with some fall protection issues that employees had been dealing with. These issues specifically related to anchorage points for crews working on our main steam stop valves. Once the grating and I-beams were removed from the valve pit area, all potential anchorage points were eliminated, and thus no fall protection could be properly anchored and used in the valve pit area. Given this problem, I contacted a fall protection solutions group that came to visit our facility and gathered information regarding our anchorage concerns. While the solutions group was on-site, we also discussed possible recommendations to solve the anchorage problem. In a follow-up email after our initial meeting, the solutions group provided detailed information about the different types of equipment we could use to eliminate our anchorage issues on this particular project. The detailed equipment recommendations were then presented to our company’s personnel, and ultimately the decision was made to purchase the recommended equipment.

That recommended equipment was two advanced portable fall arrest posts, which allow us to provide overhead tie-off and utilize small self-retracting lifelines, or SRLs, so that workers in the valve pit are equipped with complete fall protection. Among the advantages of the portable fall arrest posts is how the posts are mounted. They offer several mounting applications that range from weld-on plates to beam clamps that are designed to fit 6-inch to 14-inch I-beams, meaning that we can use the posts in numerous locations throughout the company. Time and time again, the equipment has proven to be the solution to many of our fall protection needs in both generation and transmission work, including in Scenario Two below.   

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Danny Bost, CUSP

Key Concepts of an Insulate and Isolate Program


Most utilities and contractors that perform work on energized conductors use some form of cover-up program or process. Culture plays a big part in how we currently cover for protection. When a new lineworker joins the crew, that person learns the ways of senior members of the crew, and later that knowledge is passed on to the next new person. Having control of what we work on also has played a significant role in how we cover. If you have control of the energized conductor or equipment you are working on, you may not need as much cover for protection, right? The problem is, in numerous cases, something unexpected has occurred, resulting in a flash or contact event.

There also are other reasons why we continue to have flash and contact events. Today, there is more work to do than there are qualified lineworkers available to perform the work, so sometimes companies advance lineworkers through the ranks faster than they would have in the past so those employees can perform energized work. In addition, we don’t have the luxury of doing as much de-energized work as we once did. Sadly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over a period of five years – from 2011 to 2015 – there were 62 fatalities related to electrical contact.  

So, what does all of this information point to? Simply put, it is time for us to take what we have learned from the past and train today’s employees on how to insulate (cover) for those times when things could go wrong. Then, if they lose control of what they are working with, no injuries will occur.

That’s easy to say, but changing a company or department’s culture is not an easy thing to do, especially when the company or department employs longtime workers who have found repeated success with the control-and-cover method. Many companies have spent countless hours and dollars to improve their cover-up processes – and many times observations and audits indicate their crews are working just fine – yet events continue to occur. It’s no secret that lineworkers deal with differences of opinion about how cover should be applied.

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Jim Vaughn, CUSP

Train the Trainer 101: Current in Grounds Can Kill

Over the past six months, three things have happened that I want to mention. First, I have answered numerous questions from clients and Incident Prevention readers regarding personal protective grounding (PPG). Second, the industry has experienced a rash of injuries and fatalities related to current in grounded circuits. The incidents most often have been associated with induction, but not always. And third, I have consulted with utilities and contractors, large and small, who are just now recognizing they have issues understanding PPG. It’s been hard to gauge the numbers – such as the frequency of incidents and especially comparing the seriousness of injuries – because there is no reliable clearinghouse for tracking incidents other than fatalities reported to the U.S. Department of Labor.

All of this is beside the real point, however, which is that there is no reason for any of these incidents to have occurred at all. Well, there is one: The utility industry is behind the curve in their understanding of the phenomenon of current in grounded conductors. There is an explanation for that, and it’s time to write about it again.

Let me be clear: The purpose of this article is to work toward solving the problem, not to find fault. To understand how we got to where we are, let’s first talk about industry awareness. Anyone who does research on the fundamentals of utility system grounding will notice that we have been struggling with PPG since as early as the 1950s. This has been documented in various papers from the IEEE archives of “Proceedings of the IEEE” – one of the first electrical industry journals, established around 1927 – and in “IEEE Transactions on Power Systems” since 1985.  

As the IEEE 1048 standard, “IEEE Guide for Protective Grounding of Power Lines,” points out in the introduction to the 2003 edition, “Protective grounding methods have often not kept pace with their increasing importance in work safety as the available fault current magnitudes grow, sometimes to as high as 100 kA, and as right-of-ways become more crowded with heavily loaded circuits, leading to growing problems of electric or magnetic induction.” Did you notice the date of the standard? The 2003 edition is a revision of the 1990 standard on protective grounding. As I stated earlier, we’ve been struggling with PPG since as early as the 1950s. Over 60 years is a long time to still not have figured it out.

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Danny Raines, CUSP

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? 

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Jim Vaughn, CUSP

April-May 2018 Q&A

Q: Recently an event occurred during a trouble job that surprised us. We had an underbuild phase down that was broken midspan. Our crew was working from an insulated bucket, and we grounded both the feeder we were working on and the one above. While our crew was beginning to crimp the splice for the repair, an energized line a few spans away came in contact with the grounded phase our lineman was in contact with. The lineman was in an insulated bucket, but he still received a shock. He was not seriously injured. Can you help us understand this?

A: The explanation is simple. Grounded circuits will still have current flowing through them if they are energized. Where there are resistances in parallel paths with the grounded circuit, there will be a voltage drop and there will be current flow through the parallel path. The current level is limited by the resistance in the path. Insulated bucket trucks are not totally isolating. To confirm that, all you have to do is look at the electrical tests performed on insulating booms. The current flow on an insulating boom is limited to a value well below the current necessary to injure a worker. In your case, there was voltage drop in the gap between the grounded, energized phase and the insulating boom that was a path to ground. Your lineman bridged that gap when he was in contact with the phase while standing in the bucket. The voltage was high enough to penetrate his skin so that current could flow. He was protected from injury by the current-limiting function of the insulating boom. We know it takes about 50 milliamps of current through a worker to rise to the level of injury. Depending on the electrical integrity of the boom and the voltage involved, there were – and this is just a guess based on boom-test protocols – perhaps 50 microamps to 1 milliamp of current that could flow on the boom. That is well below the level of injury. Electrical integrity of the boom is paramount in protecting workers. That is why it is critical to wash and maintain the boom.

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Frontline Fundamentals: HP Principle Two: Your Crystal Ball

I have fond memories of G.I. Joe. When I was a kid, I played with the toys and watched the cartoons. I sang along with the theme song and was ready to say “knowing is half the battle” in unison with the hero at the end of each episode, after Cobra had been defeated. The Joes were smart to realize that knowledge is power, and knowledge is especially powerful when it comes to safety, and more specifically, incident prevention.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to know the future – think about how powerful it could make you. How much money could you make if you could predict winning lottery numbers or the winner of a sporting event? Think about all the undesirable outcomes you could avoid – such as getting injured – if you knew the exact date and time they were going to happen.

It’s unlikely you will ever know exactly what the future holds, but you can use human performance (HP) to predict, manage and prevent error-likely situations that could have led to incidents. In other words, the second principle of HP – that error-likely situations are predictable, manageable and preventable – gives you a crystal ball.

Let’s define what is meant by the term “error-likely situations.” These situations occur when error precursors are present and negatively impact decision-making. Error precursors, which are grouped into four categories – task, work, individual and nature – include such things as imprecise communication, departures from routine, distractions, inaccurate risk perception, overconfidence and time pressure (see more in the TWIN Model of Error Precursors sidebar).

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