By Paul Hull
We had another death in our small community recently when a man was crushed by the earth around his trench. He knew how to do the trench; he knew the procedures to take to ensure a safe completion of his project. Like too many workers in history, he assumed that crippling or killing accidents couldn’t happen to him. His wife and two small children know it can. It’s the same with utility work. There are many excellent products to keep field workers safe in what is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Just read through back issue of this magazine to see what is available to protect your crews-clothing, tools, protective equipment, harnesses to lessen the dangers of falling, and many others. What must be understood about all safety equipment and procedures is that you have to use them for them to work.
There is much to remember because there are so many different ways utility work can be dangerous. Most of the dangers are always there, so safety for workers is not something you save for special projects. It’s an all-the-time concern-off the top of my head I would mention working at great heights and the dangers of falling; potentially frequent contact with high voltage; jobs that include cutting and welding; the weather; working in confined, restricting spaces; arc flashes; and frequent work near overhead power. All those situations demand special care; for utility workers they are everyday situations, not just events that occasionally happen. It is essential, then, that all your field workers know what to do and what not to do every day. The most difficult part for the workers must be remembering to watch for every danger, every day. Their safety depends not only on the available protective equipment and clothing, but, even more so, on their remembering to take advantage of every available safety measure. Crews that are sloppy about safety procedures will have accidents, some of them fatal, and all of them harmful to the utility concerned.
There will always be those few workers who don’t give safety the importance it deserves; they often have accidents or are related to unsafe practices. Some colleagues call these types of worker “cowboys” and one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard (from somebody with many years in our industry) is: “Don’t ever appoint a cowboy to be a supervisor.” If you’re serious about safety, you should be aware that cowboys are bad examples, not innovative leaders. Cowboys take shortcuts and brag when they get away with them; for the one shortcut that permanently injures them, or kills them, they usually don’t brag.
What are the Costs of Unsafe Procedures?
Losing a good employee for several days, weeks or months is expensive-and unnecessary. Apart from the accident caused by an unsafe decision, the injured worker could be an excellent asset to your company. Possibly worst of all is when a good worker may have been injured by a careless fellow worker’s failure to obey rules. It’s ironic that many accidents seem to be caused by the desire to speed everything up, to get the job finished quickly by taking a few shortcuts. Those at the top of the employee scale should make sure their crews obey safety procedures-and not by simply passing the responsibility down in memos to the lower levels of supervision. Safety on the job is not something that is pushed down, level by level, to become the responsibility only of the employee directly involved. Safety on the job starts with the top executives, who probably never do the job involved but who are ultimately responsible for its safe completion.
Insurance for companies with safe working records tends to be less expensive than for those companies with questionable safety records. We could be talking about thousands of dollars less expensive. Breaches of safety regulations can breed lawsuits, with the lowest penalties often worth more than a worker’s annual cost!
In metropolitan areas, the safety of utility workers can depend on the vigilance of others rather than on the workers themselves. Too many drivers go past aerial equipment and the workers high up on them without noticing them and without slowing down or giving them adequate space to maneuver equipment and people. Signs and markers are essential to show passing drivers where there is work going on above them; obeying the signs and markers should be mandatory. We hear of careless drivers in work zones, and we read of the stupid behavior of drivers in slower-then-usual zones, but how often do we hear or read about them being arrested or punished? Wagging a finger at inconsiderate and dangerous drivers does not compensate for a worker injured or equipment damaged. Perhaps it is time for utilities to push harder against such violators? And it is probably time for utilities to rid themselves of safety risks (human ones) for the benefit of work crews and customers alike.
Please don’t think that all the costs of unsafe work procedures are measured directly in dollars. If a utility shows it doesn’t much care about accidents on the job, it will find that employees (often the best, safest ones) will go elsewhere for their work. That can be a disastrous cost. How well would your company do if its crews lacked those good workers-skilled, safe workers? Inefficient work would follow, and that can become very expensive in both money and corporate image.
Ways to Promote and Achieve Safe Work
The field workers should not feel they are the only ones interested in safety. Naturally they want to work safely so that they can work and get paid, but they should be convinced that safety is an important company policy. If your utility is big enough to have a safety manager and safety team, they should meet regularly with employees to discuss safety issues. Meetings do not have to be long sessions with only the speaker having time to talk; they can be short, with one or two specific issues emphasized. Topics that could be covered are any new safety rules or procedures, federal and state regulations that have come to all utilities, any good achievements in safety that deserve mention and praise, upcoming training sessions, and re-emphasis of the workers’ responsibility to follow your utility’s safety rules (with emphasis that safety rules are for the protection of employees, not just something else to keep them under control). Remind workers of the general situations that can cause accidents and the ways they can prevent them. Mention problems such as weather-related dangers (heat and cold), physical stress caused by an inefficient way of handling an everyday task, and the dangers of flying objects-possibly caused by careless throwing of unwanted tools and parts.
High among hazards for utility workers will also be the results of falling, slipping and tripping-all events that happen quickly and should be foreseen by workers at all times. There are excellent products for lowering the dangers of falling, but you have to use them to benefit from them.
Whatever aspect of jobsite safety you investigate, there is always one common element involved: the person. Whether he or she is tall, short, heavy, light, young or older, the person directly involved in the work is the key to safety. The amount and quality of safety-related equipment has grown in recent years and, contrasted with previous results, safety records are now good for utility workers, but we can be confident that the better results come from the attitudes and skills of the persons involved. Being tall and not worrying about going up to dizzying heights is not a sufficient qualification for a safe, efficient utility worker. Everything involved in the safe operations of a utility and its workers comes back to the persons involved. Time spent on training new workers and refreshing the skills and attitudes of experienced workers is not wasted. Safety is an integral part of utility work. Safety is a facet of operations that is not something to be passed along such as a memo for the Christmas party; it involves everybody in the utility, seriously and honestly. We seem to be getting better all the time, so let’s keep that good momentum going.