Many utility leaders have adopted the slogan: “Safety is the right thing to do.” I believed firmly in this slogan until a serious incident made me reconsider this approach.

A three-person line crew was working to change out a cross-arm on a three-phase 12-kV circuit. One of the linemen got too high and put his shoulder in the middle phase as he was moving the neutral. Unfortunately, he wasn't wearing rubber gloves, and the middle phase wasn't adequately covered. His injuries were serious and significant, but lucky for him and his family, he survived.

If you asked his crew members, they would tell you that they were absolutely doing “the right thing.” On this job, the work needed to be done quickly because the crew was working overtime to restore power to customers. They cut major corners by failing to follow even the most basic of rules, but they were trying to do the right thing by working rapidly.

After this event, I drew a new conclusion: I discovered that safety is not simply the right thing to do, but rather, safety is doing the right thing. In transmission and distribution work, this is usually cut and dry. It's measured by rules, planning, actions, hazard evaluations, energy source controls and more. Below are four areas where safety is doing the right thing.

  1. Follow all rules

    In the spring of 2003, I was doing a safety audit on a seven-person line crew. I noticed that the linemen were taking some risks, so I stopped the job. I called everyone together and told the crew they needed to change the way they were performing a certain task. I was told that they didn't need to change because they were doing the work the way they had always done it. We then pulled out the safety manual, and I referenced the section, which clearly told them to do it another way. They acted astonished and asked how long that this particular rule had been in the manual. I replied that it had been in the last safety manual revision, which dated back to 1983.

    Over time, linemen may grow complacent because they're used to doing things their way. To keep them safe, conduct regular inspections of the job site and make them accountable for not following the rules outlined in the safety manual.

  2. Plan your work and work your plan

    Within the OSHA standard for electrical line work, OSHA specifically requires job planning and tells us what to discuss, including hazards associated with the job, the safety rules that we'll need to follow and any special precautions. We also need to cover energy source controls and personal protective equipment. Finally, if the job or conditions change, we need to schedule another job briefing. Through advanced planning, we can keep our crews safe in the field by preventing any unnecessary incidents or injuries.

  3. Wear rubber gloves and ground lines

    Not too long ago, “the right thing to do” was to de-energize a 12-kV or 4-kV line, then work it as dead with no rubber gloves or grounds. It was a firm shade of gray, and many distribution line workers chose this path. Instead, linemen should take care to wear their personal protective equipment at all times.

  4. Report near-misses

    When working storms, most utilities schedule morning briefing sessions with their crews before they go out into the field. They discuss the number of outages, their goals for the day and near-misses. And, in storm work, everyone shares, because hazards are extreme and no one wants anyone to get injured. But when the storm is over, our line workers will return to their routine. Oftentimes, the linemen are reluctant to share the near-misses.

Field superintendents and crew leaders should make every morning like a storm report. Take five minutes to pull crews together to review the day, discuss any changing conditions, identify goals for the day and ask for near-miss reports.

Remember, there is a difference between “safety is the right thing to do” and simply doing the right thing. In our business, it can mean the difference between life and serious injury or death. To keep you and your crews safe, try to always do the right thing, follow the rules, wear rubber gloves and ground lines, plan your work and report near-misses. While productivity is important, safety should always come first.


Matt Forck (matt@safestrat.com), a certified safety professional, worked as a meter reader and journeyman lineman, and was a member of his utility's safety staff. Today, as the president of SafeStrat, short for Safety Strategies, he speaks and consults on utility safety. Learn more at www.safestrat.com.