Lone workers Utilities

Keeping linemen safe

Utility workers often face life-threatening hazards to get the job done


Key points

  • Forty-four linemen died in work-related incidents in 2013, according to the Fallen Linemen Organization.
  • Many incidents occur during routine tasks as a result of workers becoming too comfortable and complacent, experts say.
  • More utility companies are interviewing candidates based on attitude and mental aptitude, not necessarily specific skill sets that can be developed later.

As Lyndsi Guillien ate breakfast with a friend before a recent speech in New Orleans, a steady stream of utility linemen and their spouses filled a hotel ballroom.

Guillien’s sadness returned.

Then again, it never really left. Not since her husband, Nick, died Oct. 6, 2013, as a result of injuries he sustained after a vehicle rollover incident while on the job.

Nick, a 32-year-old electrical lineman from Pella, IA, was driving his digger-derrick truck back to the shop when its front left tire blew out. The truck veered off the highway and into a median, where it overturned multiple times. Nick, who was taken off life support nine days after the crash, left behind his wife and their two young sons.

“I said, ‘Look at all these wives; they don’t know how lucky they are that their linemen are still coming home,’” Lyndsi told the crowd gathered in the ballroom for the Fallen Linemen Organization conference. “Because, you know what? I would give anything to have Nick walk back through the door one more time.”

Every year, dozens of utility workers across the country fail to “walk back through the door” after they leave for work. According to Fallen Linemen – an organization created to memorialize linemen who have lost their lives at work – 44 line workers died because of on-the-job incidents in 2013 and, as of press time, 33 line workers had lost their lives in 2014.

Many of the deaths were preventable.

“They kiss their spouse goodbye in the morning and say, ‘See you tonight,’ and they never do come back home,” Twana McFann, safety program technician with the City of Columbus (OH) Department of Public Utilities, said in an interview with Safety+Health. “Their whole world has been turned upside down.”

The dangers

At any given moment, utility workers must deal with one or more occupational hazards.

According to OSHA, these hazards include:

  • High-voltage contact
  • Working at height
  • Working in confined spaces
  • Challenging weather conditions
  • Work zone safety
  • Welding, cutting and burning

Mike Boyd is all too familiar with the dangers of line work. Boyd started Fallen Linemen in February 2013 and has helped raise more than $40,000 to support families who have lost loved ones to the profession.

Often, Boyd said, routine tasks pose the biggest threats to line workers. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when thousands of linemen headed to the East Coast to work long hours in inclement weather, workers tended to remain on high alert when it came to their safety and health. But on an average day, during a typical assignment, it might be easier to overlook a critical safety detail.

For example, Boyd said, one line worker in the Midwest died in 2014 when he fell about 50 feet from his bucket truck. The worker was wearing fall protection, but was not tied off because he had failed to hook his gear to the bucket.

“It’s that little routine – ‘Oh, go out there and change out this little single-phase line’ – something like that,” Boyd said. “It’s about focus and being your brother’s keeper. Maybe you’ve got something on your mind – you and your wife had a fight that day, or you had a bad night, whatever it is. It’s about looking out for one another.”

The mindset

Depending on their career experience, McFann said, line workers tend to be divided into one of three groups: beginners, survivors and “cowboys”.

The beginners, typically in their 20s, might be enrolled in an apprenticeship program or are recent graduates of a training school. The survivors have gained wisdom with age – they’re usually 50 or older – and often have leadership roles.

Trouble seems to find the cowboys. They tend to be climbers, usually in their 30s and 40s, and too often they tune out safety talks because they think they will be fine or they are under tight deadline pressure to do more with less, McFann said.

“They should be vigilant about not taking shortcuts,” she said. “The emphasis from contractors is, ‘Hurry up and get the job done.’ [The cowboys] are the ones that are like, ‘Oh, I can do it. I can do anything.’ Unfortunately, sometimes those are the ones that we see [with] the most critical injuries.”

As a 32-year veteran of the industry, Timothy Self knows the personality types well. Self recently became director of safety and specialized training at Southeast Lineman Training Center in Trenton, GA, after serving as consultant and director of operations for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction.

Students as young as 18 receive training at SLTC, where Self’s safety message is clear.

“You begin with attitude,” Self said. “You start to form the culture from the very beginning, letting them know that nothing is more important than the safety of themselves, the safety of others and the safety of the general public. It’s an extremely hazardous job, and if your focus isn’t on safety all of the time, people get hurt and killed.”

Effective date nears for OSHA electrical rule

The compliance deadline is approaching for OSHA’s revised final rule regarding electric power generation, transmission and distribution work.

OSHA issued the rule in April, which marked the first time since 1972 that it had published a rule addressing the construction of transmission and distribution installations. OSHA administrator David Michaels predicted that the rule would save about 20 lives and prevent 118 serious injuries a year.

Some parts of the new rule went into effect in July, but other provisions on fall protection, minimum approach distances and arc flash protection are not scheduled to go into effect until April 1, 2015.

According to OSHA, areas affected by the new or revised provisions include:

  • Host employers and contractors
  • Training
  • Job briefings
  • Fall protection
  • Insulation and working position of employees on or near live parts
  • Minimum approach distances
  • Protection from electric arcs
  • De-energizing transmission and distribution lines and equipment
  • Protective grounding
  • Operating mechanical equipment near overhead power lines
  • Working in manholes and vaults

Michaels said the updated final rule could improve safety for the percentage of stakeholders within the utilities industry that still adhered to old provisions.

“This is an industry we work very closely with,” Michaels said during a keynote address at the 2014 NSC Congress & Expo in September. “We actually have a partnership, which is even stronger than an alliance, with electrical transmission and distribution. They were waiting for this. That industry, for the most part, was following all of these rules already because we were working with them.

“So, we don’t expect major changes because we think this has already mostly been adopted. But we think there will be parts of the industry that haven’t really yet embraced this and will as a result of that. But this won’t lead to any major changes.”

Read OSHA’s question-and-answer segment on the final rule.

Gaining recognition

Utility workers sometimes serve as first responders, packing up their gear and heading toward dangerous storms and other adverse conditions because the public needs their help. But many within the industry say that linemen as a whole have not received recognition on the same level as other first responders who risk their lives.

That may be starting to change.

In an upcoming movie called “Life on the Line,” actor John Travolta will portray a lineman who must balance challenges at home and at work (in one scene, his character reportedly fixes an electrical grid during a severe storm). Travolta prepared for his role by training with the Elite Line Training Institute in Kountze, TX, as well as with workers from Ocala Utility Services near his Florida home.

As Travolta highlights the job’s hazards on the big screen, advocates are determined to increase awareness of real-life line workers who have been killed or injured on the job.

Boyd’s goal is to establish a national memorial in Washington for line workers. Fallen Linemen has a bronze statue of a lineman kneeling in front of a pole, symbolic of the cross, and it was on display during NASCAR’s “Drivin’ for Linemen 200” truck series race in June at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis.

Boyd has a 48-inch television monitor in his trailer. On the screen is a scroll of names and pictures of linemen who have lost their lives. Some pictures show the linemen smiling during family vacations. Others show them playing with their children in the backyard.

“That’s impactful,” Boyd said.

Although much work remains to be done, the overall safety culture is improving, Self said. More companies are emphasizing safety during the hiring process, placing a greater front-end emphasis on attitude and mental aptitude while knowing that they could invest time and money later to refine specific skills.

“A company has got to strive and work for that safety culture,” Self said. “As we grow and develop in this human performance-based safety model, we find out what are the causal factors to our problem.

“So, what barriers do we put in place to fix this problem? We test for aptitude, we interview for attitude – get that right attitude first – and then we put the time into training them, equipping them and then auditing them to the standard.”

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