Voice of Experience: Electric Utility Accidents and Injuries: Why Are We Regressing?

I travel frequently for work, and everywhere I go, I hear conversations about injuries and accidents that have occurred in the electric utility industry. Many of those conversations have included comments about how dangerous or hazardous our industry is. And in several articles published on Forbes.com based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job title of electrical power-line installer and repairer is consistently listed as one of the 10 deadliest occupations in America.

What is helping to keep this title listed as one of the deadliest jobs in the country? Many of us who have worked in the industry for years agree on a theory that it’s the people who are changing – not the job itself. The equipment we use has advanced and improved over time, and now it’s safer than ever before; however, the number of workers in the industry also has increased over the past 10 years.

A project led by the Electric Power Research Institute – known as the Occupational Health and Safety Database program – “enables the electric energy industry to monitor annual injury/illness trends, perform benchmarking, evaluate intervention programs, and investigate occupational health and safety research,” according to the institute’s “Occupational Health and Safety Annual Report 2008” (see www.epri.com/#/pages/product/1015630/). In the 2008 report, 13 years of personnel, injury and claims data – from 1995 through 2007 – from 17 utilities was integrated into a single data system. Findings in that report include the following:

  • More than 60 percent of employees were between 41 to 60 years old. Nearly 35 percent were in the 41-50 age group.
  • Workers aged 21-30 – approximately 10 percent of workers – had the highest observed injury rate.
  • Lineworkers, mechanics and meter readers had the greatest proportions of injuries among electrical energy occupational groups; these three types of workers also had among the highest injury rates.

This data very closely reflects data from the company I previously worked for. And with the current attrition in the industry, the average age of employees continues – and will continue – to fall due to retirement and an aging workforce. The age group that now suffers the most loss is 25- to 34-year-olds, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because a great number of meter reader jobs have been replaced by automated meter-reading functionality, lineworkers are suffering injuries the most often. In fact, lineworkers now suffer the highest incident rate of any job classification at utilities.

So, knowing this information, how can we determine the root cause of the current accident rates? How can an occupation considered the most hazardous in the 1920s, with a mortality rate twice that of miners and loggers, still be one of the 10 most dangerous occupations in the U.S. nearly a century later? Shouldn’t our industry have grown and matured to the point that this shouldn’t be the case?

Many Factors at Work
Of course, there are many factors at work. Keep in mind the number of industry employees has increased between the 1920s and the present. Today’s technology and equipment allow productive work to be accomplished with much less physical stress on workers’ bodies. Tools have reduced incident rates, but fatalities now are rising.

In particular, the series of storms the industry had to work this September proved to be serious as well as deadly to some electrical workers. While investigations have not been completed as of press time, there are some obvious similarities between accidents based on news reports. The ages of those injured and killed were relatively young. Many of the accidents likely were a result of improper use of distribution cover-up or failure to follow fundamental safe work practices. 

When the actual root causes of these accidents eventually are identified, it will almost certainly be determined that work practices and human performance were the prime reasons the incidents occurred. We must remember that OSHA regulations are minimum “whats” and “whys” – they are not instructions on how to perform work. The agency’s regulations are no more than guidelines for electric utilities to follow, and that includes investor-owned utilities, contractors, cooperatives and municipals. There are too many variables for OSHA to attempt to tell the entire industry how to work on their systems. The industry must learn from the experience of others without suffering the physical pain. But looking back on the last few years, the industry continues to make similar mistakes and then blames them on our “dangerous” occupation. With all the improvements that have been made over the years, and with the recent changes in safe work practices found in the National Electrical Safety Code and OSHA regulations, we should be getting better, not worse.   

Why Are We Going Backward?
So, what are the reasons we are statistically going backward? There are many differing opinions. Social media comments seem to support Forbes’ findings regarding dangerous occupations. I received feedback on a recent article I wrote in which the commenter suggested safe work practices have nothing to do with accidents, that training and experience are the most important factors.

The reality is the industry must better come to grips with the fact that humans are fallible; we make mistakes and are never quite as good as we want to be. Experience affects employees the most. Today, with many new employees entering the industry, training is improved, but the overall experience level is lower than in the past. And as employees’ average age and experience level continue to drop, safe work practices are invaluable. So, again, employers must adopt a policy of accepting reality rather than continuing to accept injuries and fatalities as costs of doing business.

Regardless of the situation and those present on a job, if employees in working positions understand and follow all rules and regulations, they will be safe. All others around the employee can fail to do their jobs, but if the employee recognizes hazards, follows work procedures and wears appropriate PPE, they will be fine.

Regulations are written in a manner that protects the worker in almost all situations. After one accident occurred, I was told “someone made something hot on someone working.” Think about that event. What do the regulations require for us to consider the work area to be safe? Employees must de-energize according to OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269(m) and ground according to 1910.269(n) to establish an equipotential work area. If the system were to become energized, what would happen? It would depend on total compliance with the rules, but employees should be protected.

Another accident I’m aware of that resulted in a fatality occurred when a pole being set in an energized distribution line contacted an energized conductor. I don’t know all the details, but proper cover-up of energized conductors and pole shields on the pole may have prevented the loss of life. Spreading the conductors, allowing extra clearance, would have been an additional preventive measure. These kinds of stories go on and on. The same types of incidents keep occurring and the industry continues to lose workers. This can and should be stopped – families deserve better.

Summary
In summary, the electric utility lineworker job classification only becomes dangerous when all regulations and safe work practices are not followed. As I state in my training classes, our industry is very predictable, and it also is unforgiving. If rules are not followed, the consequences many times are bad things happening to good people. But the problem is that many times workers fail to follow safe work practices and regulations with no negative consequences; this results in a false belief that “we are OK.”

If hazards are identified and controlled, PPE is worn and safe practices are followed, work can be performed safely and uneventfully.  

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.

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Tuesday, 16 January 2018

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