Linemen face countless hazards when conducting field activities. From charged electrical distribution components to bustling highways and byways, these utility professionals must execute worker orders while keeping in mind numerous natural and manmade hazards. Of all the potential perils linemen encounter in the field, slick surfaces and elevated work areas are among the most dangerous. Apart from transportation accidents and workplace violence incidents, slips, trips and falls caused the most fatal on-the-job injuries in 2016, claiming the lives of approximately 849 workers across all sectors, according to researchers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over that same span, the incident rate for nonfatal slips, trips and falls was 27 per 10,000 full-time workers – the second-highest incident rate among the five primary injury types the BLS tracks. In short, these seemingly minor spills cause workers great harm.
However, the stakes are higher for utility workers, most of whom do their most meaningful work within inhospitable conditions. With this in mind, electric companies should devote considerable resources to preventing slips, trips and falls in the field. How? These strategies have proven effective:
"Apart from transportation accidents and workplace violence incidents, slips, trips and falls caused the most fatal on-the-job injuries in 2016."
Modern customers expect service providers to act quickly when interruptions occur. The vast majority of American utilities meet this expectation, mitigating non-catastrophe caused outages in under two hours on average, according to research from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. When major weather events or other unusual occurrences lead to loss of power, the mean mitigation time increases to three hours – still very fast, considering the circumstances. These data points show that power providers are focusing on responsiveness, utilizing operational strategies that facilitate speed. However, utilities should be careful not to encourage overly accelerated field work, for when linemen attempt to hurry through work orders, safety standards fall by the wayside and normal movements become increasingly dangerous. Slips, trips and falls often occur in these rushed situations, as field workers sacrifice safety for speed.
Electric companies can prevent such situations from unfolding by encouraging crews to practice patience in the field. When field crews embrace pragmatism, they can easily avoid the seemingly nonthreatening features that commonly cause workers to lose their footing – most notably, uneven or cluttered sidewalks, unstable work surfaces and high-traffic locations, according to the National Safety Council. Speed-hungry utility managers might ask, "Won't this emphasis on operational pacing lead to longer outage mitigation times?"
The short answer is no. Utilities can reduce slips, trips and falls in the field while quickly serving customers by emphasizing process agility rather than accelerated execution. When linemen have streamlined workflows at their disposal, they can execute with patience, stay safe and meet customer expectations.
Address field equipment safety
Electric transmission features normally rise to considerable heights. For instance, industry-standard utility poles range between 20 and 110 feet, according to Mr. Electric. A fall, trip or slip from such heights would result in serious or fatal injuries. Yet, linemen regularly ascend these and other tall service delivery devices, including transmission towers which can measure hundreds of feet in height. This state of affairs necessitates immense caution on the part of power providers. It is essential for these organizations to properly prepare linemen for work in elevated environments, ranging from bucket truck compartments to sheer utility pole surfaces.
The distribution of personal protective equipment is the first and foremost step utility managers must take, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Harnesses are, of course, the most important safety accessories here. OSHA recommends that electric companies provide models equipped with gaffs or hooks that allow linemen to maintain stability when working, and do not allow for falls of more than two feet. Additionally, these devices can be used for hitch-hike climbing. However, before linemen can ascend utility poles, they are required to conduct inspections to ensure the structures in question are sound enough to climb and the equipment they are using functions properly. Of course, utility managers must provide training to workers responsible for working on utility poles. OSHA and other regulatory bodies offer robust best practices for working on these structures.
In addition to addressing PPE and climbing techniques, power providers should focus on the details of key field fixtures and plan ahead. For example, utility poles normally vary in material composition. Some are made of cedar, fir or pine hardwood while others are composed of concrete, fiberglass or steal, according to Mr. Electric. The surfaces of these structures vary dramatically and require the use of disparate field techniques. By preparing linemen ahead of time via prejob briefings, utilities can reduce the likelihood of slips, trips and falls.
Understand the environment
Field crews do their most impactful work during and immediately following extreme weather events. Of the 86 large-scale power outages that occurred last year, 64 were linked to severe weather, analysts for the EIA discovered. This means many linemen found themselves not only navigating hazardous electrical transmission fixtures but also outdoor conditions that increase the risk of injury. No matter the season or weather event, slips, trips and falls are likely to occur when field crews do not take certain precautions. For example, linemen who fail to shorten their strides when walking on ice or snow, as suggested by OSHA, often sustain injuries. Those who encounter flooded, rain-slicked surfaces in similarly cavalier ways find themselves in equally troublesome situations, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"Of the 86 large-scale power outages that occurred last year, 64 were linked to severe weather."
That said, there are some outdoor environments that prove too inhospitable for even the most highly-trained, technically-sound linemen. Utilities must be able to accurately assess field conditions and decide when mother nature has inhibited an effective response effort that does not risk the safety of field crews. Cutting-edge software often proves useful in these situations. For instance, utilities with mobile application suites in place can spot dangerous situations by keeping open lines of communications with customers or linemen already in the field. Outage management systems support this kind of assessment as well, for the simple act of confronting an interface covered in outage notifications can indicate the presence of a particularly powerful weather event that precludes immediate action.
Slips, trips and falls can be disastrous in the utility sector, where workers navigate rough outdoor conditions and elevated heights on a regular basis. Electric companies that fail to address these injury patterns will lose workers and sustain irreparable harm in the marketplace. Not only will talented utility workers avoid applying for open positions, but the bottom line will also sag under the weight of significant financial penalties tied to OSHA violations. The agency distributed more than 6,000 fall protection citations in 2017, the NSC reported. These violations came with fines ranging from almost $13,000 to well over $129,000.
The business, cultural and operational cases for addressing slips, trips and falls are indisputable. Utilities that have not seriously taken action must do so as soon as possible.
Power providers looking to improve their safety strategies, including those centered on slips, trips and falls, via new information technology infrastructure 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 automatic vehicle location software. We also offer mobile suites designed for linemen and utility managers – transformative products that have enabled utilities across the country to more effectively plan and monitor field operations and, by extension, keep their field crews safe.
Contact us today to learn more about our weather-tested outage management system and what it can do for you and your linemen.