by Paul Hull
It may be a good idea to remind everybody what not to wear when working outside as a utility worker, especially those who work near electricity. Most of the following are obvious, but please make sure you check before every job. Don’t wear metal bits and pieces-belt buckles, rings and jewelry-and don’t wear clothes that could easily melt. Polyester, rayon, nylon and acetate-unless it has been treated for flame resistance-are not sensible materials when working with electricity. Materials and accessories such as these are attracted to electricity. Statistics also show it is the worker’s clothing that causes the worst damage and pain after an accident. That means we are always ready to blame an arc flash, but it is the effect the flash has on the worker’s clothing that causes the real suffering.
It was only in July 2014 that OSHA published its revision of standards for electric utilities, by which electric utility workers and their contractors are required to wear flame resistant (FR) clothing for arc flash exposure. As of April 2015, those workers were required to wear arc-related FR clothing suitable for workplace hazards. That protective clothing must be paid for by the employer. At the beginning of 2015, companies were required to have completed an assessment of the arc flash hazard for their employees and to determine the arc level and appropriate clothing for the workers. This is a serious concern and law for all utility workers, not something that would “just be a good idea.”
Clothing recommended for our outdoor workers is based on the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC), and that is a code supervisors and workers should be familiar with. Other sources for advice and regulations are the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), whose publications are renewed regularly to keep up with current dangers, and the American Society of Testing of Materials (ASTM), which publishes specifications and test methods for protective clothing and equipment, and is also revised regularly. Practically, it’s not just a question of being familiar with the NESC, NFPA and ASTM-it’s a matter of obeying the rules every day, for every job. Carelessness or neglect with clothing can be disastrous for our employees-and us. It is not a matter of fashion, not what looks handsome or attractive on the workers, but a matter of safety. Many outfits designed for utility workers are pleasant to wear and look at, but even the most attractive (or macho) outfits are made of materials that are primarily protective. The brand name Nomex immediately comes to mind, but there others. Check out what’s available for safe clothing.
Bright clothing for workers makes them easier to see, and that is particularly important for those who work on the ground near traffic that sometimes seems to care little for the workers who must labor close to fast-moving, heavy vehicles. Even a truck going at a leisurely 15 mph can do awful harm to a person. Being clearly visible is half the battle; you’re more likely to win and be safe if all the drivers can clearly see you. There are many styles and colors of clothing for those who work in areas of dangerous traffic; they don’t all look awkward or grubby. We should be aware that the environment for the outside work is not always a dull, gray blob, because there is plenty of utility work that has to be done where the environment is colorful (stores, equipment and signs, for example). Some manufacturers of good, protective clothing address that problem with designs that can be seen and noticed almost anywhere. If you think such precautions are out-of-date or unnecessary, consider that several utility workers have been killed this year by passing traffic and they were not up on the aerial lift-they were on the ground.
Protection for Everywhere
We tend to ignore some parts of the body when we think of fire and electric dangers. Yes, we can imagine the hands being easy targets for flashes, or the chest and arms. If you look at the lists of available protective clothing, you’ll see that everything is protected, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet, because electricity is not particular about where it strikes. Give it an opportunity to strike and it will take it.
If you look at the catalogs or advertisements of clothing manufacturers, you’ll see that the products are not limited to one part of the body, such as the arm or hand, foot or leg. There is protective clothing available for every exposed part of the body. Some hazards are more publicized than others; arc flash is given plenty of attention because it can be so hurtful and unexpected. It also makes a good picture for publication, which is good, because arc flash is extremely dangerous. But let’s not forget some of the “lesser” dangers. Slipping and falling can bring injuries as long-lasting and painful as burns. Wearing the right boots can prevent many tripping accidents and the right gloves-flame resistant, for example-can prevent many painful hand injuries.
Gloves can protect hands against fire. Gloves can also protect hands against cuts. We may always think of arc flash dangers for our utility workers, but they always need gloves that will protect them against cuts. Maintenance, installation and repairs to electrical equipment are always a potential source of cuts, bruises and lacerations, and it will be the hands that are most likely to suffer. You can get the right gloves from a good supplier, gloves that are insulating for Class 00, 0, 1 and 2 applications, gloves for cut protection, and gloves that comply with OSHA regulations. Gloves are available that will guard your workers against both electrical attacks and cuts; choose high or low voltage gloves, whichever are better for your applications. Gloves should not impede the worker’s efficiency; they should always be flexible and suitable for holding the tools needed for a particular job-or they can become more of a danger in themselves than a means to stay safe. As new technologies advance and new communication systems proliferate, many utility workers have asked that their gloves also handle objects such as smart phones. In many states, winter weather dictates that you should be able to use your smart phone or touch-screen device without taking your gloves off. Some gloves-from Galeton, for example-have tips that allow the user to keep gloves on while using the screens essential for communications.
Most of the linemen I know seem to frequently wear boots, even when they are not working-some of the styles are complicated in design, and expensive. On the job, boots should allow the worker to move easily and safely, to protect the feet from unwanted impacts and flames, and to be safe in all weather conditions. It would be impossible to say that one particular boot is best for every job, so the choice will depend on what the boots are required to do. One boot may be best for climbing ladders, another for scaling different kinds of structures. Whatever the application, you can be sure there are boots that are suitable and available.
A point that should be made constantly, even if its repetition can be annoying to some, applies to all protective clothing and equipment. The products, whether coats, gloves, boots or headgear, must be worn correctly. The worker who makes little adjustments-such as not tying this or cutting a bit off that to make the item more comfortable-is probably destroying the integrity of the product. Supervisors should always make sure their crews are wearing the appropriate protective clothing and they are wearing it correctly.
Clothing on the job is as important as tools and equipment. You wouldn’t let your crews work with faulty wrenches and crimping tools, and you wouldn’t expect them to be efficient with inefficient machines, so don’t let them work when they aren’t protected from nearby dangers with the appropriate clothing. It’s not how fashionable they look, it’s how safe they are when accidents happen.
And there’s one danger not mentioned, yet. It’s always there, always at the worksite. It’s the weather. It varies from place to place and it’s usually kind enough for most of the year, but weather can be the most treacherous enemy for people who work outside, whether it’s wet, cold, hot or windy. All clothing for utility workers should be able to withstand the attacks of weather.