Autumn has arrived, which means winter is on the horizon. Analysts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict average temperatures will surpass seasonal norms across much of the country this coming winter. However, research shows that these elevated temperatures actually lay the groundwork for more extreme winter weather, working in collaboration with oscillating ocean water off the Pacific coast to spin up particularly violent storms featuring heavy precipitation and cyclonic winds, according to NOAA. Indeed, the organization expects parts of the Southeast and Southwest to suffer such squalls over the next three to five months. Linemen will be tasked with navigating these conditions in the service of their respective communities, braving snow and howling winter winds to ensure their neighbors have power. This is, of course, immensely dangerous work for a variety of reasons, chief among them, the presence of crippling gusts.
Wind chill poses a serious threat to utility workers navigating the outdoors during the winter months, promoting the development of fast-moving, deadly health conditions. An estimated 42 American workers die annually from exposure to temperature extremes, including those linked to elevated wind chill levels, researchers for the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. Utility companies can avoid becoming a part of this disturbing statistic by equipping linemen with the knowledge and tools they need to safely work as the winter wind blows.
Grappling with the risks
Workers exposed to high winds while working outdoors during the winter months are at risk for developing cold stress, a condition during which heat quickly exits the body, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Individuals who develop this environmental ailment experience precipitous drops in skin and internal temperature, setting the stage for dangerous cold weather-caused illnesses such as frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot. The former can develop in less than an hour in some conditions, NOAA reported. For example, linemen in 1 degree Fahrenheit-weather who are experiencing winds of 55 miles per hour or more – a surprisingly common occurrence for utility workers in the Northeast and Midwest, according to Ohio’s Electrical Cooperative – can contract frostbite in a half hour. In recent years, some locations have seen wind chill readings that far exceed even this notable extreme. In fact, in December 2017, meteorologists stationed at Mount Washington in New Hampshire suffered through wind chills of -89 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions so cold one could contract frostbite in as little as 60 seconds, The Boston Globe reported.
While most linemen will not have to deal with such temperature extremes this winter, many are likely to come across significant wind gusts that could cause serious injury.
“An estimated 42 American workers die annually from exposure to temperature extremes.”
Addressing linemen safety
How can utilities protect field teams that may have to brave significant wind chills? Training is perhaps the most effective solution, according to OSHA. When workers understand the risks, they make sound field safety decisions. Even those who tend to push past initial discomfort and attempt to work through the cold might have second thoughts with all of the pertinent information in hand, including insight into cold stress and other serious conditions. That said, training is only part of the equation. In addition to empowering linemen with knowledge, electric companies must offer them the resources and strategic structuring they need to stay safe when working while the wind blows.
OSHA recommends that power providers amend field schedules during the winter to facilitate longer breaks for linemen working outdoors. Ideally, these electrical professionals should have access to warm, dry areas during these moments to avoid wind exposure. The organization also advises utility managers to schedule maintenance work during the warmest parts of the day – usually between noon and 3 p.m. Lone wolf field work is another issue utilities must address during the winter months. This is simply not an optimal strategy, as linemen executing service requests alone may be oblivious to the outdoor conditions and develop cold stress or other serious ailments without access to colleagues who can render emergency medical treatment. Finally, electric companies should put into place reliable engineering controls that mitigate the impact of wind chill. For instance, many equip field crews with radiant heaters and other cold-weather gear that can deployed at a moment’s notice. Some go one or two steps further and implement advanced outage management technology with specialized modules that allow dispatchers and supervisors to monitor and keep in close contact with linemen functioning in blustery, cold conditions.
Solutions of this kind may come with automatic vehicle locator features that make it easy to track crews working in the field, along with mobile application suites that streamline communication between headquarters and deployed linemen. This enables individuals in the office to reach out to workers and keep them updated on weather conditions or recall them in the event that the outdoor environment becomes too dangerous. Even the base OMS features can bolster linemen safety during the winter, allowing operational teams to assess whether or not field work is required and possibly save line workers from having to brave winter wind chills in the first place.
As fall flies by, utilities across the country should re-evaluate their safety procedures and ensure that their linemen will be protected as they head out into winter wind gusts.
Here at DataVoice, we help electrical companies do just that via our advanced OMS technology, which integrates with numerous world-class utility modules, including AVL, advanced metering infrastructure. We also offer robust mobile suites designed for linemen. These and other DataVoice products bolster utility operations across the country, solidifying our reputation as a world-class OMS provider with weather-tested, deployable offerings.