Providing accurate, effective training to workers is one of the electric utility industry’s most pressing challenges. From my perspective, there are not enough appropriately qualified trainers to fill the open jobs available. As our industry’s attrition rate continues to increase, will we be able to provide the right training to new and existing employees? Each day, there are lineworkers being given work to do for which they are not adequately trained, endangering them and their co-workers. We need trainers to help correct this problem so that fewer lineworkers are hurt on the job.
I mentioned that our industry has a shortage of “appropriately qualified” trainers. There certainly are a number of individuals working for utilities and contractors who hold positions that have the word “training” or “trainer” in the title. But some of those individuals are newer lineworkers with limited experience working with crews. That can be a problem for their trainees, who need and rely on the guidance of trainers with real-life experience about how to plan and execute specific job tasks. Too many of these trainers lack a basic understanding of system grounding, distribution cover-up, and switching and tagging for employee protection. OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910.269 standard was updated in 2014, and our industry’s trainers must know and train students in accordance with those regulations.
OSHA Training is a Must
Most readers of Incident Prevention are well aware that there are lineworker training centers across the U.S. that do an excellent job of providing basic training. Those schools help trainees make decisions about their career paths and obtain minimal training on what’s required to be compliant with both OSHA regulations and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
OSHA expertise is a must for utility industry trainers. In particular, there is a real need for OSHA-authorized electric utility trainers who can teach construction and general industry topics as well as classes on 1910.269 and 1926 Subpart V. In some companies today, trainers are only training to the company safety manual – not the regulations. They must understand how OSHA and other regulations apply to their company and the company’s rules. The value of employing an OSHA-authorized trainer is the credibility that underlies the title.
I want to take a moment here to say that I completely understand the fear lineworkers have about being confined to a training center and not being out in the field with the line crews. However, the most effective training requires a combination of classroom and in-the-field experience. Training also needs to be ongoing so that workers stay up to date on the most current industry best practices, tools and equipment.
What Makes a Good Trainer?
Many of the baby boomers who have carried much of the training load either already have left or are preparing to leave the workforce. The generational shift is underway. For those who remain in the workforce, here’s a question to consider: What makes a good industry trainer? Being an OSHA-authorized trainer is a good start, and there are plenty of them out there, but the majority do not have the electric utility experience needed to communicate with lineworkers.
Depending on the students and topics, however, train-the-trainer courses can be a very beneficial way for trainers to improve their teaching skills and methods. In addition to the nuts and bolts of electric utility work, trainers also should be well-versed in soft skills, including topics such as interpersonal relationships, communication skills, generational differences and personality profiles. Understanding those topics helps trainers interact more effectively with trainees, and trainees will need to understand them, too, as they’re essential at every level of business.
Here’s a personal story I want to share about becoming a trainer. When I was a journeyman and, later, a supervisor, I realized I had a desire to share with other workers what I had learned in each position. On the way to achieving that goal, I learned that perhaps the biggest challenge for trainers is effectively communicating what we want to share with both apprentices and more experienced journeymen. The learning curve is continuous over the course of one’s career. None of us will ever know it all. Still, the goal of a trainer in the electric utility industry should be to effectively share what we know with an emphasis on safety.
Our industry is very narrowly focused on the completion of work. Sometimes, not enough thought goes into identifying and planning the safest and most productive way to complete a job. There’s one fatality I’m aware of that had all the hallmarks of inexperience and poor training. To many of us involved in the investigation, it was obvious that the worker who died – a man in his 20s – had chosen to use incorrect methods and rigging practices. He’d also run into problems with the minimum approach distance and wasn’t wearing the appropriate PPE. So, what role did training play in all this?
Many years ago, all training was of the on-the-job variety, and trainees just hoped that the lineworkers training them would instruct them in the best and safest work methods. Today, we have IBEW apprenticeship programs and training offered by private institutions. Of course, there is still a tremendous amount of on-the-job training for crews, and the reality is that it may provide trainees with some of their most practical experience and training. The problem is that there aren’t always senior lineworkers on a crew. In the case of the fatality I mentioned, the two journeymen who were in the buckets had less than three years of crew experience. Two or three years on a line crew does not make an employee a journeyman – and it certainly does not make for an effective trainer.
Good, seasoned trainers are dearly needed in our industry. The job requires a mix of applicable industry experience, the willingness to be patient and the ability to communicate effectively with trainees. Beyond that, the challenges are determined by the players involved. And all of the players in our industry are needed to prevent incidents, injuries and fatalities.
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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