Cold temperatures have already begun moving into parts of the country, signaling the swift approach of winter. This weather complicates utility field operations, endangering the linemen who keep essential service delivery infrastructure up and running amid freezing rain, sleet and snow squalls. The industry maintains a fatality rate of 2.2 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Cold conditions increase the likelihood of such deaths occurring. With this in mind, power providers must do all they can to protect their employees as winter unfolds. How? Information.
Utilities can help workers avoid injury by giving them the guidance they need to safely navigate winter weather. Here are some of the tried-and-true working strategies these organizations should pass down to their linemen:
Wear weather-appropriate clothing
Linemen must only venture out into the field when properly clothed – this is foundational cold weather working advice. However, dressing for cold working conditions involves far more than throwing on any store-bought coat, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Utility workers should wear multiple loose layers. Linemen might be tempted to gravitate toward tighter clothing in an effort to bundle, but these restrictive garments reduce blood flow and lower the body temperature. Additionally, tight winter wear reduces range of motion, which can inhibit worker performance and compromise safety. Field crew members should also ensure that their extremities are well-insulated. Hats and gloves are particularly important. The former reduce the amount of heat that escapes the head, while the latter protect the fingers against frostbite. Workers should be sure to wear boots that both insulated and waterproof.
Utility employees must also consider clothing materials when selecting garments for outdoor work. Duck or goose down are the best insulators, according to the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America. Plus, jackets and coats made of these materials are normally lightweight and compressible, allowing for ideal range of motion. Wool is another effective insulator and normally comes oiled and woven, making it waterproof. However, this classic material does have some downsides. Wool is heavy and takes considerable time to dry after being soaked through. It is also known for its itchiness, which can pose a problem for workers. Linemen should opt for nylon as an external layer. The tightly woven material is coated in urethane, making it waterproof.
Understand the risks
Most linemen, especially seasoned professionals, are likely to assume they fully understand the health risks that come with prolonged exposure to winter weather. Individuals in sectors where outdoor work is normal are well aware of cold weather-related conditions such as frostbite. However, there are numerous other illnesses that develop due to low temperatures or extreme winter precipitation.
For example, outdoor workers have been known to develop hypothermia, which is characterized by symptoms like fatigue, loss of coordination and shivering, according to the CDC. Those in the later stages of the condition experience labored breathing and loss of consciousness. Trench foot is an equally serious condition that develops as a result of prolonged exposure to cold moisture. In most cases, the workers who suffer from trench foot stand in melt water or snow for long periods of time without properly insulated and water-resistant shoes and outerwear. However, temperatures do not have to dip below zero for this condition. Individuals have developed trench foot by coming into contact with water as warm as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Extreme symptoms accompany the illness. Workers with trench foot exhibit abnormally red skin and experience numbness and cramps. Blisters and bleeding beneath the skin are also common. In extreme cases, gangrene can develop, increasing the likelihood of limb loss or death.
The aforementioned conditions actually develop as a result of a minor health phenomenon called cold stress, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Cold stress occurs when extreme weather conditions lower the body temperature and leave it more vulnerable to the outdoors. Prevention is fairly simple. As long as linemen wear appropriate clothing and maintain reasonable working hours, they can avoid cold stress and the medical complications that can come with it.
Know your limits
Utility workers take great pride in what they do and are willing to brave conditions of any kind to keep critical power infrastructure going. However, the human body is not conditioned to facilitate such lofty ambitions. Linemen must know their limits and retire from the field as soon as they reach their respective safe performance thresholds. Of course, most are not equipped with the knowledge needed to ascertain just how long they can function in winter weather. Luckily, analysts for the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists took the time to develop detailed materials for OSHA that set out such limitations.
Wind chill plays an important role within these guidelines. For example, when the approximate air temperature is between -15 and -19 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing at 10 miles per hour, OSHA requires employers to institute a 75-minute work limit, with at least two breaks. Linemen should adhere to these guidelines and cease surpassing them, even if they feel as though they could continue working.
Learn first aid
Even with strict safety protocols in place, workers can sustain weather-related injuries. With this in mind, power companies should equip their employees with the basic medical knowledge needed to stabilize individuals who develop serious conditions out in the field. For instance, the linemen treating colleagues suffering from trench foot should move these individuals to warm areas, help them remove their foot wear and dry their feet. For frostbite, the procedures are considerably different. Workers with this condition should cease using the affected extremities immediately and warm them, with minimal contact, using body heat or immerse them in warm water.
Utility workers with this knowledge can have an immense impact in medical emergencies, lending critical winter field care that can literally save lives.
Embrace winter utility management strategies
Normal line work is immensely dangerous. However, during the winter, the stakes increase dramatically, as surfaces become slick with ice and snow while precipitation weighs on lines and other service delivery infrastructure. Consequently, linemen should exercise increased caution when performing field work in the winter. Preventing slips, trips and falls should be the first priority. These occurrences account for 15 percent of all occupational fatalities, as well as countless injuries, according to OSHA. Workers can avoid these outcomes by performing simple wintertime maintenance before working on elevated surfaces such as bucket truck platforms, utility pole rungs or roofs. They can also avoid slips, trips and falls by paying attention to how they move when navigating slick surfaces on foot. Those who take short steps and walk at slower paces are more likely to safely move about these areas.
When it comes to repairing downed power lines or working near these fixtures, utility workers should be sure to adhere to industry-standard best practices. This may seem like obvious guidance, but, with the winter winds whipping about, snow falling and temperatures dropping, linemen may inadvertently divert from these operational standards due to preoccupation with adverse weather conditions. In addition to maintaining safe line maintenance protocols, workers must be particularly vigilant about snow or ice covered transmission lines, as the precipitation covering these fixtures may fall off and injure utility employees or distract them from their work, laying the groundwork for electrical malfunction.
Watch the road
Of all the hazards linemen are likely to encounter during the colder months, wintry roads are perhaps the most dangerous. In normal conditions, these routes are immensely treacherous, causing an average of more than 4,500 worker deaths per year and accounting for 38 percent of all occupational fatalities, according to OSHA. When winter hits, dangerous highways and byways become even more hazardous as sleet, snow and soups of road clearing chemicals turn asphalt into ice. There are, of course, winter driving strategies that can keep linemen safe as they moved throughout their neighborhoods during the wintertime.
It is essential that vehicles operators drive slowly and carefully watch the road for black ice and other cold-weather obstacles known to catalyze crashes. In addition to practicing safe driving strategies, utility workers and managers must ensure field vehicles are properly maintained and have fine-tuned braking, cooling, electrical and exhaust systems. These vehicles should also come equipped with supplies that crew members can use in the event that they become stranded in the elements. Blankets, food and flashlights are essential, as are snow removal and management tools such as scrapers, shovels and traction aids. It is also advisable to stock service vehicles with alternative communication tools like two-way radios so linemen can get in touch with home-base personnel even if cell service is unavailable.
In addition to equipping their vehicles with the above items, power providers might consider implementing new backend technology that further optimizes roadway safety during winter. Automatic vehicle location tracking systems, for example, give utility managers the power to monitor crews as they attend to customers. These solutions track vehicle speed and direction, and indicate nearby locations that could serve as stop-offs for workers in need of additional assistance.
As winter moves in, utility companies must prepare by offering their linemen pieces of essential safety guidance such as those mentioned above. Companies that want to take things a step further and bolster wintertime operations via new backend technology should consider connecting with DataVoice International. Here at DataVoice, we develop and deploy advanced outage management technology that integrates with numerous world-class utility modules, including AVL and advanced metering infrastructure tools. We also offer mobile suites designed for linemen and utility managers – transformative products that are in use at power companies across the country.
Contact us today to learn more about our weather-tested products.