I would like to ask those of you reading this article to reflect on your professional life in 2018. What was different from previous years? Was safety at your company better, worse or about the same? As I sit and write this article during the first week of October 2018, I know that so far this year, the electric utility industry has suffered more than 20 fatal accidents and over 30 serious flashes and contacts. I don’t know what’s going to happen between now and the end of the year, but I pray no one else gets hurt.
The fact is, our industry has suffered extremely high numbers of fatalities since around 2013. The last I heard, in 2017 we had 45 fatalities between investor-owned utilities, cooperatives, contractors and municipals. NIOSH and EPRI started doing research in the mid-1990s through approximately 2006, and they found that the electric utility industry recorded 24 to 28 fatalities each year. The causes of those fatalities included contacts, falls and vehicle accidents.
What continues to amaze me is that our industry has the investigation and root cause analysis measures to identify why accidents keep happening, but we fail to implement the measures available to us to prevent recurrences of these types of accidents. The majority of fatalities occur during energized line work, yet they keep happening. Why? On one hand, while it’s true that lineworkers are some of the best trained craft workers out there, even the most seasoned lineman is human and can make an error in a moment of stress, or if his mind wanders or for any number of other reasons.
On the other hand, what I know for sure is that true professional lineworkers who have been properly trained should have the discipline to recognize imminent danger and hazardous conditions. I have been teaching distribution cover-up for years. I was a lineman for two decades and then a supervisor of line crews. In my 50 years of electric utility work and management, I have never forgotten the safe work rules that were taught to me as an apprentice lineman in the late 1960s. If you perform this type of work every day, you simply don’t forget safe working rules. Beyond human performance issues such as time pressure, some of the individuals who have been involved in horrific contacts and flashes unfortunately made conscious decisions not to do what they knew was right, instead opting to, perhaps, not employ the correct safety equipment or don the appropriate PPE. Or, maybe they overestimated their abilities and thought they were in control around energized equipment, differences of potential and paths to ground – when, in fact, they weren’t. These behaviors are one of the largest contributors to the safety problem in our industry. Here’s something else to consider: Have you noticed that the OSHA standards refer to exposed energized equipment about five or six times in 29 CFR 1910.269(l), “Working on or near exposed energized parts,” but the agency only refers to differences of potential once or twice in that section? So many of our industry’s fatalities are the result of phase-to-ground contact during energized work. If only the agency had put more emphasis on differences of potential when the standard was revised in 2014.
Something else I’ve noticed recently is the influence social media can have on those in our industry, especially regarding the methods used in performing line work. I have seen many comments on Facebook and other sites that never should have been written, ones that may have adversely influenced young lineworkers who are learning the trade. Successfully finishing vocational trade school classes, completing an apprentice training program and receiving the journeyman designation are not what make a professional lineworker. This topic reminds me of the time when I finally took my check ride with the Federal Aviation Administration examiner at what is now known as Auburn University Regional Airport in Alabama. The examiner handed me a white piece of paper and said, “Here is your license to learn.” I asked what he meant; I thought I was going to receive my private pilot’s license. He told me that I did successfully pass the check ride and the white piece of paper was my temporary license until the FAA mailed me my permanent one. The examiner also said that I had proven myself as a person who is smart and trainable, and that the license would permit me to obtain the experience I needed to be a safe, effective pilot. That was almost 40 years ago. I am still learning as a pilot. There is no difference with lineworkers. Graduating from school and receiving that piece of paper doesn’t mean you know all that is needed to be a safe and productive journeyman. You are just getting started.
With new technology, equipment and work methods making their way into our industry, line work is a never-ending learning process. I have always stated that the only thing about line work that is standard from organization to organization is that the big end of the pole goes in the ground. After that, the company you work for determines the training needed for its employees to safely perform work. If the company fails to provide the required training, they put employees at risk of injury and the organization at risk of regulatory violations, which can result in citations and other penalties. All of us must understand that OSHA regulations provide us with the minimum legal requirements of our work. How to perform line work is determined by industry standards and work practices. Keep in mind that simply adhering to the OSHA regulations doesn’t mean you are as safe as you could be.
What’s the Difference?
As I was working on this article, I heard news of another journeyman fatality; this worker was performing service restoration in the Northern U.S. Once upon a time, storm restoration was some of the safest work journeymen lineworkers engaged in, but that’s changed over the last few years. I have been on storm teams in the past, and I once worked two to three weeks restoring power in awful conditions. Not one medical attention situation was reported. Now, as many as two fatalities and two contacts have occurred during one storm restoration effort in the last two years. What is the difference between then and now?
Our employees, equipment and the age of our systems account for some of the differences. Attrition in the workplace is a major factor. Many new lineworkers are still in the early stages of learning how to safely do their jobs. Without senior work employees providing direction and human performance oversight, unfortunate things can happen. Contacts, flashes, vehicle accidents, falls and many other contributing incidents are included in the count. Yet I truly believe our industry can and will stop the carnage – and it starts with the decisions being made within our organizations.
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.
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