As I write this article, I am reflecting on 2014 and thinking about how many contacts and fatalities the electric utility industry suffered last year. There were fewer than in 2013, but the improvement was only slight. At present, the most accurate count for 2014 is approximately 40 fatalities and 45-50 electrical contacts. One serious injury or fatality is too many, and all of them can be avoided by planning and the proper use of training, tools, time and teamwork.
As I read reports of 2014’s fatalities and serious injuries, I wondered how thoroughly job briefings were performed before these events occurred. I have investigated many accidents and injuries in my career, and many times a causal factor of an accident – if not the root cause – is the crew’s failure to perform an adequate and thorough job briefing. OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269(c) requires a job briefing to be performed before every job or task. All crew members are required to be informed by and to participate in the briefing.
Hazards and Work Procedures
The first topic that must be covered by a briefing is hazards associated with the job. I firmly believe that if all hazards are not identified before a task starts, an unidentified hazard will be the one to claim a life or injure an employee.
Work procedures is the next job briefing topic to be addressed. For every hazard there is an acceptable work practice, tool, or safety procedure that can be used to safely perform the task and control the hazard. Electric utility work is a hazardous profession, but it becomes dangerous when employees do not follow all of the rules, regulations and instructions on every job, every time. According to an August 2013 Forbes.com article, electrical power-line installers and repairers rank seventh on a list of America’s 10 deadliest jobs (see www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/08/22/americas-10-deadliest-jobs-2/). That is accurate when workers fail to recognize hazards and mitigate risks through the implementation of proper operating procedures.
The selection of the correct and safest work procedures is a subjective decision made by workers on the job site. Many times the selection of an incorrect work procedure leads to an incident or accident. A good example is attempting to incorrectly use a tool, such as a wire becket or “sock” designed for conductor or rope to pull in wire or bull line. The becket might pull out and drop the rope or conductor, which could be harmless, or it could fall across a highway or other energized conductors. Screwdrivers are another example; how many ways do employees use one to do something other than turn a screw? Line crews are some of the most creative people in the world, but sometimes the best efforts combined with poor judgment end up leading to disaster.
Special precautions also must be covered in a job briefing. Every job site is unique and should be thoroughly inspected before work begins. Most jobs look similar on paper, prints and single-line drawings. Once on the job site, however, employees have a greater ability to identify a single fact or visible hazard that, if gone unnoticed and not discussed, can lead to problems for workers. One example is unevenly sagged conductors due to past troubles, slack guys and leaning poles. When conductors are untied from insulators, spans of different tension or length will equalize, and if sag is out severely and unequal, conductors could make contact midspan, resulting in a flash and breaker lockout. This usually happens where three-phase lines roll from flat to vertical. When releasing the conductors or moving conductors to new locations, at least two spans in either direction from the work location should be assessed. Old #4 or #6 copper wire damaged by lightning or past troubles may be about to break and, when cover is applied and extra weight is on the conductor, it falls. Another potential issue to be aware of is the stress a worker may experience if he or she engages in a task performed only once a year or less often. Examples include an overhead lineworker working underground or a distribution lineworker working inside a fence at a substation. Sometimes unusual environments lead to distractions and loss of focus.
The fourth topic to be covered in a job briefing is energy-source controls. This requirement closely relates to OSHA 29 CFR 1910.147, “The control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout).” Failure to recognize electrical energy and failure to release stored energy before work starts have sadly claimed the lives of many workers. Hydraulic, pneumatic spring-loaded tensions are present on nearly all job sites and many times overlooked because we tend to focus only on the electrical source on which we are working.
Personal protective equipment is the final and perhaps most important topic that must be included in a job briefing. It is last on the list of requirements by design because correct use of properly rated PPE is a lineworker’s last line of defense. The final barriers used to control hazards and mitigate risks associated with tasks include Class E hard hats; ANSI Z87.1+ safety glasses; arc-rated FR clothing with the correct ATPV rating that also meets the ASTM F1506 standard; and the proper class of rubber gloves for the voltage being worked. One thing I was taught early in my career is that a lineworker’s best friend is his or her rubber gloves. I personally know of many lineworkers who were killed due to failure to wear rubber gloves and/or sleeves. I will discuss proper cover-up and use of distribution cover and equipment in the next issue of Incident Prevention.
Thorough job briefings are one of the best accident prevention methods you can use. They are an outstanding way for companies to document what has been discussed, and they are also a positive step toward creating a strong organizational safety culture. Although OSHA saw fit not to require written job briefings in the updated 1910.269 standard, I still firmly believe in them. It is difficult to convince anyone that a briefing was performed if there is no written document to serve as proof. OSHA’s decision not to mandate a written briefing came as a surprise to many of us in the industry because there have been so many times that the failure to perform an adequate briefing led to an accident. In spite of the decision, most companies now require a written briefing, and other consensus standards have recognized the importance of written briefings and thus require them.
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.