The notion of lineman safety is certainly not new within the utility industry. It’s literally the #1 stated goal of any electric utility worth its salt, and it is a particularly important concept for linemen during restorations. The reasons are obvious – bad weather, falling limbs, stress, fatigue, resource limitations, debris-covered roads, downed wires – you name it. The good news is that serious safety problems are, luckily, few and far between, but the bad news is that this level of infrequency can often prevent lineman safety from being top of mind.
Statistics tell us that lineman safety has markedly improved over the past few decades, but the sad truth is that there are still preventable deaths and disfigurements that occur each and every year. With that said, let’s drill down into some best practices that can help enhance safety for linemen, no matter if it’s during a post-storm restoration, or during maintenance activity on a blue sky day.
Lineman Safety Best Practices
Obviously all electric utilities already have safety protocols in place, and a complete refresh of these established practices is usually not feasible. For this reason, not all of the best practices discussed below are applicable to every situation – some relate to process design and some relate to tactical execution. Still, whether applicable right now or not, it’s good to understand the foundations of success. With that, let’s dive right in!
Safety Process / Protocol Design & Development
First, it’s helpful if restoration safety protocols are designed in ways that do not make line employees’ jobs more difficult. This might seem like an obvious statement, but I’ve seen plenty of overzealous safety directors go too far. Too much of a good thing is, well, not so good. As a general rule, safety protocols should be easy to follow, and, to the extent possible, be designed with an eye on minimizing the effort needed to follow them. The age-old business adage, “KISS” (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is important to keep in mind when trying to enhance safety.
Similarly, safety protocols should ideally be agreeable to line personnel (or at least, as many of them as possible). You can have the best safety protocols in the world, but if linemen do not adopt them, they might as well not even exist. Therefore it’s a good practice to solicit feedback from line workers as these protocols are being developed. This will help ensure that their needs and wants are considered, and that they have a forum to have their voices heard. It can also help give them a sense of ownership in the decision-making process, which should (at least in theory) increase their propensity to embrace, adopt and follow the decisions.
Day-to-Day Safety Best Practices
Perhaps one of the easiest things that can be done to engrain a safety consciousness into everyday activities and keep it top of mind is to incorporate safety information into briefings. For example, communicating known hazards, as well as methods to minimize the safety risks associated with these hazards, at the beginning of each work shift.
Another way to promote and enhance awareness of safety for all linemen to regularly attend safety training sessions. This type of training is critical to safety – linemen need to know the rules and best practices embodied in the NESC, OSHA and other pertinent codes and regulations. Not only does this increase the employees’ propensity to be safe on the job, but it can also help line personnel hone their instincts regarding decisions like when to go slow or even stop if conditions or configurations don’t make sense.
Third, and perhaps most obvious, all Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) must be checked for damage, contamination, and high levels of wear and tear every day. The required PPE should also be appropriate for the job at hand. For example, linemen should always wear flame resistant clothing. Similarly, rubber insulating gloves and sleeves should be worn when working on energized circuits or equipment from an aerial platform, and the sleeves should meet, at a minimum, the electrical class rating of the rubber gloves when working on primary conductors. Fall protection equipment, such as wood pole fall restrictive devices, should be utilized wherever possible.
Finally, an on-site crewmember should be selected to be responsible for ensuring proper safety protocols while crews are working on energized lines. This includes, but is not limited to, identifying energized components and nominal voltages, ensuring clearances are maintained, ensuring proper safety protocols are followed, and making sure that all PPE is up to snuff.
Metrics related to lineman safety metrics have gotten better within the utility industry over the past few decades, but for many electric utilities, there is still room for improvement. In general, it is recommended that electric utilities, when developing lineman safety processes and protocols, make it as easy as possible for personnel to follow the recommended actions, and solicit feedback during the development process to understand their needs, wants and concerns. From a day-to-day perspective, safety information should be embedded into all crew shift briefings, linemen should be required to attend regular safety training sessions, PPE should be inspected for compliance daily, and each crew should have a designated person responsible for making sure that all safety protocols are being followed by all crewmembers.