Our Worst Fears

By Diane Kelly | Aug 15, 2013
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In June 2008, a four-person crew began work to upgrade existing 7,200-volt (V) power lines by installing new 15-kilovolt (kV) switches and removing the old switches. The crew was divided into two-person teams. The crew foreman, who was the victim, had 15 years of experience as a journeyman lineman and was paired with a fourth-year apprentice groundman at one pole. The nearest crew was working on a pole about 200 yards away. The decedent had never worked on this particular pole. The crew had completed about four hours of a 10-hour shift.

The line they were working on supplied electricity to a summer residence that was not yet occupied for the season. The company owner stated that, since the residence wasn’t occupied, the power should have been turned off. Therefore, the victim may have assumed that the line was de-energized. Prior to installing the 15-kV switch, he did not disconnect the stinger. After installing the new switch above the existing transformer, the decedent began to remove the old-style switch.

When the decedent went up, he was wearing cotton gloves under his lineman gloves and lineman sleeves. At some point during the switch change, he removed the lineman gloves but kept on the cotton gloves and lineman sleeves. The victim began to remove bolts that attached the existing can arrestor to the transformer. The company owner postulated that, when the first bolt (the one on the bottom) was removed from the transformer, the can arrestor was loose and tipped over. The decedent may have instinctively grabbed the energized can arrestor with his right hand. The electricity entered through that hand, traveled across his chest and exited through his left hand, which had been in contact with a second energized conductor.

The fourth-year apprentice was acting as the groundman and heard the line “burp.” Then he heard the victim yell to be brought down to ground level. The decedent was found unconscious, breathing and shaking. The groundman called to the other crew for help. They removed the victim from the bucket and began CPR. The cotton glove was still on his right hand, but the left glove had been blown off. Although the groundman had a very bad cell phone signal in that area, he was able to contact his supervisor. The supervisor called for emergency services, which arrived within six minutes. The emergency crew continued CPR and transported the victim to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the following recommendations:

• Prior to beginning maintenance and repair operations on power lines, employers should ensure that linemen follow established safe work procedures to de-energize, ground and verify through testing the work area is de-energized.

• Employers should ensure that linemen use all appropriate protective equipment, including insulated tools, when attempting any work on power lines with energized circuits.

• Employers should conduct both scheduled and unscheduled job site safety inspections on a regular basis.

• Employers should develop checklists of proper safety procedures and equipment for each job, which could be used to reinforce safe work practices.

• Employers should ensure communication devices are operational in all work locations or have alternative methods of communication in place in cases where the service is spotty.

Designing safe work practices is only the first step in preventing injuries. These procedures must be effectively communicated to all employees and supervisors and then followed by everyone at all times. In addition to regular training, a job briefing must be conducted before the start of each job.

At some point, the decedent removed his protective lineman gloves, which made him a path to ground. Keeping those gloves on may have allowed this work to be completed without incident.

Job site safety inspections help ensure employees are following established safety procedures. Admittedly, these inspections won’t prevent all employee injuries and fatalities. However, this type of inspection will help demonstrate that the company is committed to enforcing its safety policies and procedures.

A checklist for proper safety procedures could include items that identify the hazards associated with the job, work procedures involved, special precautions, energy source controls, and personal protective equipment requirements. It may have identified the difficulty of removing a bolt while wearing lineman gloves and suggested an easy-to-hold, nonconductive tool to help with this task.

Cell phones are the norm in communication between workers in the field and the home office. This becomes a problem in “dead zones” with no mobile phone reception. Employers should ensure that all locations where workers may be sent are cell-phone compatible with a reliable signal, or another reliable form of communication must be supplied.

The tragedy is that following these basic recommendations may have brought this employee home safely at the end of the day.

About The Author

Diane Kelly is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 or [email protected].

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