At Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G; Newark, New Jersey), ergonomic tools are changing the way overhead and underground technicians are installing and maintaining lines and poles. By investing in these tools, the utility is making linemen's jobs easier, more efficient and, most importantly, safer.

Electric utility workers often work in awkward postures, use repetitive motions and apply a significant amount of force when on the job. This puts them at risk for ergonomic injuries, primarily musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), including minor sprains, strains and repetitive stress injuries like stress fractures and dislocations. In some cases, in-depth surgery is required to repair extensive tears to ligaments and tendons.

In the 1990s, PSE&G sought to improve safety conditions for its workers. By the early 2000s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) total recordable case rate dropped from 5.26 in 1994 to 2.19 in 2005, but getting the rating lower proved difficult. In response, senior leadership at the company launched a corporate initiative called “Safety Visioning” to examine the cultural aspects of worker safety and formed a Safety Visioning Team.

Creating an Ergonomics Team

In 2005, PSE&G's Safety Visioning Team created an ergonomics sub-team as part of the Safety Visioning initiative. The team's mandate was to look at possible ergonomic interventions to improve worker safety while, at the same time, examining the corporate culture at PSE&G around safety issues.

The Electric Delivery, Gas Delivery and Customer Operations departments each provided a business health and safety professional, a union craft worker, a corporate medical and safety policy representative, a training specialist, a standards and methods consultant, and a technology transfer consultant to serve on the team.

To get closer to an OSHA rate of zero, the team identified the norms and values in the corporation that allowed accidents to happen. Over the last five years, the team has helped to advance the culture of safety at the company, promote ergonomic awareness and implement solutions.

One of the team's core objectives was to accomplish ergonomic awareness through ongoing communication and education for all employees by integrating ergonomics into existing health and safety processes. Another objective was to assess available research data, analyze medical data, prioritize tasks and establish a pilot program. A crucial tool for this second objective was a series of Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) handbooks on ergonomic interventions for overhead distribution line workers; manhole, vault and conduit applications; and direct-buried cable applications. First developed at We Energies (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), the handbooks provided valuable data.

The team also examined medical data to determine which job classifications had experienced significant numbers of MSDs from 2003 to 2005. For example, the electric distribution overhead line workers lost hundreds of days of productivity from the top five MSDs, and the company paid out thousands of dollars in upper body MSD medical expenses.

The medical data supported the ergonomic team's initial prediction that the most-common MSDs suffered by overhead linemen were upper body and shoulder injuries. When looking at this area, the utility tried to come up with an intervention that would specifically target the upper body parts for the overhead line workers. Because these linemen typically work with their hands over their heads, the utility opted to try out battery-operated tools.

The team separated the interventions into four lines of business — electric delivery, gas delivery, customer operations and utility operations support — and identified pilot ergonomic interventions considered “low-hanging fruit,” such as battery-operated cutters and crimpers for overhead line workers and underground technicians, and a manhole/vault lift cover for gas delivery workers.

The ergonomics interventions and business case examples from the EPRI handbooks, in conjunction with the medical data, enabled the team to develop business cases to justify the expense and effort involved in implementing each intervention. In the case of the overhead line workers, the business case showed that the cost of purchasing overhead battery cutters for workers to use for new service connections would be recovered in one year, based on direct costs such as lost work days and medical expenses, indirect costs such as case management and incident tracking, and improved productivity.

Evaluating Tools

Before rolling out ergonomic tools to the field, PSE&G first determined where they would be the most beneficial. The team first analyzed specific job tasks and classifications in the Electric Delivery division to see where most ergonomic injuries occurred.

The ergonomics team discovered most injuries fit into three categories: awkward working positions, high forces and repetitive motions. The team then looked at the most common causes of these injuries and found that crimping and cutting wire were at the top of the list.

The team also found a common thread in these injuries: the tools. The workers had been using the same tools and techniques for many years, and many were not ergonomic. To solve this problem, the team decided to introduce battery-operated crimpers and cutters, which reduce repetitive motion, require less force and make the movements less cumbersome.

The manual cutter exposes the worker to all three primary ergonomic hazards — awkward positioning, excessive forces and repetitive stress — while gripping the tool and leveraging against the rib cage and/or underarm. In contrast, the battery-operated cutter eliminates the high force needed to cut conductors and provides a better mechanical advantage by moving the conductor and tool closer to the worker, reducing the awkward stance and the repetitive force placed against the rib cage and/or underarm.

The team investigated different types of battery-operated crimpers, cutters and drills. After extensive research, the utility decided to test tools manufactured by Huskie Tools (Glendale Heights, Illinois) and Hilti USA (Tulsa, Oklahoma).

The team had to ensure that the tools met the utility's safety requirements and didn't create other hazards. The team evaluated the tools by performing an array of field and lab tests in 2007. A handful of overhead line technicians from the company's overhead divisions spent three months testing the tools in the field. They were required to provide extensive feedback about the tools, and they put the tools to the test.

The battery-operated cutter hit a home run with the linemen who tested the tool in the field because of its light weight and versatility. Unlike their other cutter, the new tool didn't cause any wear and tear on their bodies, and its shorter handle allowed them to get into better work positions.

In addition to field testing, PSE&G gathered feedback about the tools from other utilities using them. In the end, both Huskie's battery-operated crimpers and cutters and Hilti's battery-operated saw-all and hammer drills were approved for use.

PSE&G opted to limit its tools to two different manufacturers to reduce the number of necessary chargers and batteries on the job sites. If the linemen aren't able to keep the tools powered, it can create a nuisance and create unnecessary delays. PSE&G's ergonomics team decided on the vendors because of their full range of tools and equipment, ergonomic benefits, safety features and longevity in the industry.

Rolling the Tools Out to the Field

After PSE&G determined which tools to introduce to the field crews, the utility then had the challenge of getting buy-in from the linemen. At first, the linemen were skeptical about using the tools, but after they used them and experienced the benefits, they readily accepted the tools. They even began making suggestions for other ergonomic solutions.

PSE&G introduced the new equipment to its workers in January 2008 in a series of all-hands meetings. These meetings included educating the workers about the nature of their jobs and the potential for injuries, the use of the new equipment and how it would affect their work, and reinforcing the idea that workers were responsible for their own health and safety.

Reaping Benefits

The ergonomic tools not only have health and safety benefits like improved short- and long-term availability through the reduction of MSDs, but they also help improve reliability and productivity. The tools allow for more consistent flush cuts and calibrated crimps, which reduce hot spots and create a more reliable system.

When PSE&G first started its ergonomics program, the company primarily looked at it from a medical, safety and health perspective. In the end, however, it proved that there is so much efficiency to gain, and as a result, the system benefits. It's been a win-win situation not only for the workers in the field, but also for the customers because of the improved system reliability.

From a productivity standpoint, the tools help in several ways. For example, they extend the workers' careers and make them more available and physically fit to work. The tools also improve productivity by 30 minutes a week, or 26 hours a year.

Last year, Electric Delivery purchased approximately 842 ergonomic tools. The linemen are now using several styles of large steel cutters, saws, hammer drills and crimpers. Two years after first testing the battery-operated tools in the field, the ergonomics team believes they made the right decision when it came to selecting the proper tools. While the cutter was the first tool evaluated, the line crews have since field tested crimpers, drills and saws.

Now the team looks at everything it does through ergonomic eyes. They try to give the linemen the easiest tools to do the job. The linemen have not only moved to lighter-weight, smaller and battery-operated tools, but they've also done hundreds of other ergonomic interventions.

The ergonomics program is ongoing at PSE&G, and the team is always looking for improvements. The key to making ergonomics a sustainable effort is to have the employees recognize they all play a role in identifying and eliminating ergonomic hazards out of the workplace. Once they do, it will change the company's safety culture and place knowledge in the hands of those doing the job.

Moving Forward

PSE&G is finalizing a corporate ergonomics process that includes management and union leadership, employee participation, hazard information reporting, job hazard analysis and control, training and an MSD management process and program evaluation.

The ergonomics sub-team recently conducted a six-month evaluation on the battery-operated cutters. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed indicated a notable musculoskeletal improvement over the manual and hydraulic cutters. The team expects it will be two or three years before the MSD rates begin to decline but are confident they will.

Team members are committed to advancing a culture of safety through ergonomic interventions. PSE&G has used the ergonomics process to make its system safer and, at the same time, arm the linemen with the tools they need to reduce injuries and boost productivity.

Chris Callaghan (christopher.callaghan@pseg.com) is a practice and procedures specialist and has been with PSE&G for the past 11 years. He was instrumental in running the pilot program to test the tools.

Deann Muzikar (deann.muzikar@pseg.com) is a communications consultant at PSE&G.

Karen Noe (karen.noe@pseg.com), a project management professional, is the ergonomics team lead for PSE&G.

By the Numbers

EPRI's Occupational Health & Safety Database shows that line workers are prone to injury according to these 2007 statistics:

  • 1,409 full-time equivalents were lost due to injury/illness
  • 988 of these losses were due to ergonomics injuries, according to data from 16 utilities
  • 658 were from strains or sprains
  • 187 were from repetitive stress injuries
  • 143 were from fractures
  • $6,000 to $600,000 per injury in medical claims

Challenge

PSE&G needed to reduce ergonomic injuries and to improve safety conditions for its workers.

PSE&G also needed to better understand and strengthen the gap between the corporate safety culture and the technical safety processes.

Solution

PSE&G created an Ergonomics Sub-Team as part of an overall corporate Safety Visioning initiative.

The team evaluated ergonomic interventions identified in the handbooks, analyzed medical data to determine the MSD injuries, lost time days, direct and indirect medical costs associated with these injuries to determine top MSD concerns and developed pilots to address the top musculo-skeletal concerns per job classification.

Once the data was complied and reviewed, the top MSD injuries per job classifications were selected and pilots were developed to address the ergonomic injuries.

Results and Benefits

PSE&G advanced the corporate safety culture as well as identify new ergonomics work processes that not only reduce MSD exposure but increase productivity and reliability.

PSE&G expects that injury rates, lost days and medical cost will be reduced by implementing the ergonomics practices identified in the EPRI handbooks.