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High-powered Safety

Electric power is such a common, convenient part of everyday life, it’s easy to forget how many men and women work around the clock, 365 days and nights a year, to keep that electricity flowing where and when it’s needed. Their jobs of installing, maintaining, and repairing power lines involve constant exposure to deadly danger.

Greg Morgan, safety and training director for Big Rivers Electric Corporation (which generates electricity for three distribution co-ops in Kentucky), says, “Our biggest problem is ignorance. People think that power lines are insulated—but they are not insulated. Also, too many people think that power lines carry only 120 volts like household wiring, but in fact, distribution lines generally carry 7,200 volts, or 14,400 volts, or in the case of transmission lines, 69,000 volts or more.”

Convincing the public to stay away from power lines is an important part of Morgan’s job.

But co-op employees must do their jobs in energized work zones, so emphasizing safety rules and procedures is a major focus of electric cooperatives everywhere.

Right-of-way workers and journeyman linemen (the name’s traditional, even with increasing numbers of women in the field) must never forget for a moment that their lives depend on thinking and acting with safety first, last, and always.

Attention to safety has been receiving more attention in Kentucky in the past few years, with electric co-ops taking a number of steps to keep workers safe. A review of safety statistics in the state during the past few years resulted in a broad effort by the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives, and its member co-ops, to increase safety training. A recent workshop focused on one particular electric utility specialty, right-of-way workers.

Right-of-way workers are the people who keep the area around power lines cleared of vegetation and other potentially dangerous obstructions. They look at trees differently from landowners.

“A homeowner sees a huge shade tree,” one right-of-way worker says as he buckles on a pair of leather and metal climbing spikes, “but I see the individual branches.”

Picking up his chain saw, he continues, “When I see a limb that’s too close to a power line, I think of all the dangerous things that could happen: the limb could touch the wires, causing power to blink or a complete outage. The limb could provide a path for the electricity to go to ground, it could damage our equipment, or if a kid climbing the tree came in contact with the power line, there could be a deadly accident.”

Right-of-way workers face enormous dangers themselves. That’s why Pennyrile Electric co-op, based in Hopkinsville, held its second Right-of-Way Safety Workshop this August in Princeton with classroom sessions and practical demonstrations of proper in-the-field techniques.

About 50 participants, including workers from co-ops as well as nearby municipal utilities, were required to bring their own PPE—electric lingo for Personal Protection Equipment. That includes a hard hat, safety glasses, leather work gloves, chaps, leather and metal climbing spikes, a harness and lanyard for work from an elevated bucket, ear plugs, fire-retardant clothing—the list goes on and on. That’s because at these workshops, the attendees actually do the work, putting safe techniques into action. They learn by watching demos, then performing the tasks themselves.

This summer’s workshop, which leads to employee certification, included such things as how to inspect an area for hazards, how to rig ropes with just the right knots, advice on positioning themselves and their saws safely, even how to rescue each other if someone gets into trouble.

Pennyrile’s safety director Robyn Bybee says, “We are governed by OSHA regulations, the National Electric Safety Code, and our trucks must meet federal Department of Transportation rules and EPA rules. There are a lot of rules—and our co-op’s safety program rules may actually exceed those required by law.”

Bybee, a former volunteer fire department chief and emergency medical technician, makes a minimum of 50 crew visits each year within Pennyrile’s nine-county service area. Her surprise inspections while right-of-way and line workers are doing their jobs make sure that everybody consistently follows the safety regulations.

This attention to detail pays off. Bybee notes, “We just completed two years—that’s over 500,000 man-hours—without a lost-time accident.” In July 2004, Pennyrile Electric received its third Governor’s Safety and Health Award for Excellence.

Nationally, the record is good, too. About 60,000 co-op employees keep the power lines up and humming over almost 75 percent of the geographic area of the United States. Almost half of these co-ops already take part in a rigorous National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) program, the Rural Electric Safety Accreditation Program.

Ken Brubaker, manager for Safety Programs at NRECA, says, “Across the country we have 32 area administrators, team leaders who recruit others to help with inspections. At three-year intervals, a team visits a participating co-op to inspect the safety practices in buildings, along aboveground power lines and in underground service areas, at substations, and vehicles. They look at the employee work practices that are visible the day of the inspection to get an accurate idea of the safety culture within the co-op.”

A second part of the program involves inspection of the recordkeeping for the co-op, spot-checking and tracing all kinds of procedures to see that they correctly document safety rules.

This fall, nine co-ops will be recognized at their regional meetings for a remarkable achievement: each of these co-ops have reached one million work-hours without a lost-time accident.

Next month: The Kentucky co-op safety initiative

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