Overhead distribution line work is physically strenuous and can expose workers to musculoskeletal disorders, such as low back pain and shoulder tendonitis. In a survey of more than 150 active line workers in the United States, 40% of the respondents reported pain in their wrists, shoulders, or back at least one day a week. To help reduce injuries and consequent health care costs, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) quantitatively evaluated line worker tasks and suggested improvements to their current work practices and equipment. Based on the research, EPRI identified best practices for line worker tasks and published a handbook detailing the recommendations.

Many of the tasks performed by overhead distribution workers require lifting heavy materials and operating hand tools in a manner that requires extreme force in awkward postures. EPRI's plan was to help improve these work practices through scientific study.

Janice Yager, manager of the Occupational Health and Safety Research Program at EPRI, says, "This is the first comprehensive study specifically directed toward ergonomic solutions for overhead distribution line workers. Our team included university ergonomics researchers, line workers, supervisors, occupational health and safety professionals, applications engineers, and EPRI."

EPRI worked closely with We Energies on the field portion of the project. EPRI also supported extensive laboratory measurements to scientifically evaluate ergonomic factors on workers performing selected tasks. Additionally, researchers and the ergonomics team visited four other electric power companies to confirm that recommended solutions would apply broadly in many locations.

The 32 tasks in the resulting handbook were detailed in a close joint effort between the researchers and the line workers. The handbook has been enthusiastically received. Patricia Seeley, principal consultant for ergonomics at We Energies, says, "The approach resulted in easy-to-understand descriptions and illustrations. The science is there, but it is very user-friendly. These tasks had been done the same way for years, and no one could believe things could really change. The new tools are lighter and more durable so they save time and money while producing health benefits. The bottom line is, when the line workers get done at the end of the day, they don't hurt!"

We Energies experienced a payback time of six months for its $912, 000 purchase of battery-operated presses and cutting tools. "This doesn't include savings realized by improved productivity and product quality," adds Tom Golding, director of corporate safety at We Energy.

What's next for the project? According to Janice Yager, the work will continue with training materials that will bring the handbook's key recommendations to life. Also, similarly designed research work has begun on the ergonomics of underground work such as that conducted in manholes, vaults, and underground distribution installations. She adds that much of this work may be applicable to other industries, such as telecommunications.

To purchase a copy of the handbook, the "EPRI Ergonomics Handbook for the Electric Power Industry: Overhead Distribution Line Workers Interventions" (1005199), contact the EPRI Customer Assistance Center (EPRI CAC) at 800.313.3774 or askepri@epri.com.