Following electric safety basics remains the most pressing issue in transmission and distribution, according to Ken Brubaker, manager of safety programs at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Insulating and isolating personnel in energized work zones with the use of proper tools, cover-up materials, rubber gloves, sleeves and hardhats remain missing key ingredients in many serious accidents or injuries that continue to occur in this business.

Brubaker has observed, “The regulations and rules for use of insulating tools, cover-up materials and these insolating personal protective items are often not consistently understood, followed and enforced among employees on the same crew.”

Brubaker goes on to explain the steps to de-energizing a zone before commencing work. “De-energized zones are created from a wide array of switching and clearance procedures. The myriad procedures should include these simple steps: Request clearance, disconnect at the source, test the tester, test for absence of voltage, retest the tester, isolate with a visible open, install grounds, tag the circuit and confirm the process is complete. If any one of these basic steps has been missed, the work zone cannot be considered “de-energized.”

Who's Responsible?

Does everyone in the industry know these steps? Brubaker raises the same question. He looks to 2005 for the answer to a host of unanswered questions. “Who is most responsible for accidents in either energized or deenergized work zones? Is the employee responsible when injured without cover-up or rubber gloves? Has a supervisor allowed certain conditions or events to supersede the normal rules in storms or nighttime work? Does management encourage the bypassing of safety rules with comments, suggestions, incentives, motivation or praise that are counter to the compliance with their organization's safety rules? Do the industry standards and regulations reflect compromised and politically correct language that make interpretation, understanding or enforcement as grey as can be, deliberately? Is it possible that all of these parties might be responsible and we all have failed to some degree?”

One thing is certain, the basics of electrical safety should always be followed.

Ed Hunt, a seasoned veteran in T&D field operations at Western Area Power Administration, agrees, “The industry should try to help one another understand why accidents occur and what actions may have prevented them from occurring in the first place.”

Communications is Key

Hunt goes on to say, “I firmly believe that there are two root causes to any accident. One is an individual or a group of individuals in one form or another failed to adequately communicate,” Hunt continues. “Secondly, an individual or group of individuals decided to ignore, sidestep or were just plain ignorant of a safety rule.”

In Hunt's career as a lineman and now Foreman III, he notes that crews that feel free to talk, joke and communicate with each other are the safer crews. They discuss the job at hand, they plan ahead better, and they usually are comfortable enough to speak up if they feel the need. Characteristically, these crews are comfortable poking fun at each other. In contrast and unfortunately, many crews are not this way. Often there is tension on the crew due to conflicting personalities, misconceptions, assumptions without clarification and so on. Hunt says, “These are the catalysts that, if left unchecked, set up the chances for an accident on a crew.” He advises workers to seek some way to “get the lines of communication flowing.”

Research and development is also important to utility safety. Many R&D projects are in the works in labs at universities and private companies. Hunt encourages people from our industry to read trade magazines, attend trade shows and, whenever given a chance, to participate first-hand or learn more about new developments, tools or practices. “I believe that with R&D comes the potential for a safer work environment,” concludes Hunt.

The Workforce Bubble

The shrinking pool of trained electric utility workers is another issue affecting transmission and distribution field operations. The question is, How does it affect safety? Katherine Gomm, a research analyst with the United Telecom Council (UTC) gives a strong warning regarding this trend. She reports, “The loss of qualified employees to retirement and to other jobs outside the industry is at the critical stage. Without well-trained, knowledgeable employees, the industry cannot continue to guarantee the safety of the many customers who depend on us.”

Referring to The Bureau of Labor Statistics 2003 demographics, she says, “Approximately half of our ‘baby boomer’ utility workers will be eligible for retirement within the next five years. So, beginning immediately, the critical time for mitigation planning is upon us. All levels of a T&D organization — management, technical professional and unionized craft workers — can expect to be negatively touched by this trend.

Gomm, an expert in workforce replenishment, warns that, “In 2005 the pressing need to secure SCADA and control systems against the threat of terrorist attacks that can shut down vital life-sustaining power flow will be compounded by inadequate pools of young replacements.

“Human resources professionals are finding recruitment of young people into utility careers increasingly difficult as qualified individuals are more attracted to high paying professional and information technology tracks, while others cannot pass utility pre-employment tests due to poor math and reading skills,” Gomm said.

Root Causes

Another way of looking at the alarming trend is to consider the loss of “institutional memory” or the failure to transfer knowledge. Gomm explains, “Knowledge loss is a particularly disturbing trend for critical infrastructure companies and may be considered the root of our problems. The absolute need for reliability is paramount as the public's well being depends on a fail-safe electric grid. The Aug. 14, 2003, blackout demonstrated all too well how important adequate technical training and communications skills are to control room operators.

Gomm, who has researched the shrinking workforce trend for the UTC, makes several suggestions. “The need to retain older workers can be addressed by re-training programs and making the workplace accessible to those with disabilities. Age discrimination should be confronted squarely,” says Gomm.

“Equally important is the need to find ways of attracting young people into the profession, such as by offering fast-track programs, school out-reach programs and creating family-friendly work environments,” continues Gomm. “By approaching knowledge and skills as invaluable assets, creative ways of protecting them is made possible and ideas such as capturing knowledge in computerized decision-making tools flourish and may well prove to be the means of sustaining the viability of the electric grid.”

Constant Monitoring

The issues presented by these industry experts bring some important questions to the forefront: Will the basics of safety continue to be ignored by some? Can communications problems be overcome to promote a safer work environment? Can the industry fill the voids as the baby boomer retire? These questions and more will be addressed in future issues of Electric Utility Operations.

We will continue to report on news, ideas from the field, and new products and training programs that impact our work place and the men and women who put on a hardhat everyday. Please e-mail your contributions to Rich Maxwell at rmaxwell6@kc.rr.com.