Weathering the storm

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, a veteran hydro worker in Sarnia, Ont., was killed while trying to repair damage caused by the destructive storm that left more than 200,000 people without power across Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.

The man worked for local utility Bluewater Power and was electrocuted while trying to fix downed power lines.

“It is devastating because the community was so proud of the fact that there had not been anyone injured during the storm and that we’d come through it as a family,” Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley told the CBC, adding that Bluewater crews were “working around the clock keeping the city functioning.”

Utility and electrical workers, including power line technicians and utility arborists, face significant risks when working in or after storms of all kinds, including hurricanes, heavy winds, rain, ice, snow or thunder and lightning.

“If you are going out there when the storm is still going on, the overhead lines, things are moving, trees can still fall down when you’re there, you have all those hazards,” says Barry Manes, power line technician training and apprenticeship consultant at Ontario’s Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA).

“Is it a wind storm, a snowstorm? When you set up on the highway, does the public, the traffic, see you? Are they going to drive into you? Or are the wires going to fall down on my truck? There are all those situations.”

Utility companies need to have workers available 24-7, 365 days per year to respond to power outages and other emergencies, so workers spend a lot of their careers responding to storms. In 2013, 3.2 million people were affected by power outages across Canada, according to Eaton’s Blackout Tracker Annual Report.

“Nothing really breaks during the nice weather; it always seems to beak during the bad, windy weather,” says Manes. “Our weather patterns seem to be getting more severe than they were in the past. There seems to be more of them and they come in and hit really hard like microbursts. It’s a very large portion of our profession.”

One of the most concerning elements of a storm is high winds because they can strain utility infrastructure, such as lines and poles, and create additional hazards when working on the distribution system.

“The lines can break and they can move, so if a worker is up in a bucket on a bucket truck, they are in a specific location and have put controls in place for that location; they don’t really want significant changes,” says Brendan McCracken, safety and training co-ordinator at Peterborough Utilities Group in Ontario. “And the wind can knock tree branches down on lines when they’re working on them.”

The heavy wind can make it difficult for workers to complete tasks such as restringing wire from pole to pole. Workers must follow manufacturer instructions and specifications to determine maximum permitted wind speed during operation of devices used for lifting people or objects.

Supervisors and workers must use their own experience and local weather reports to determine when the wind has become too hazardous to continue work. If there are hurricane-force winds, for example, utility workers will not be out as it is too dangerous. They will typically wait and start recovery efforts once the winds have abated, says John Sprackett, chief of staff for the Power Workers’ Union in Toronto.

Ice storms are also a problem. In December 2013, an ice storm hit the Greater Toronto Area that left 300,000 customers without power in the city alone.

During an ice storm, the tree branches often have difficulty accommodating the weight of the ice and many of them will break, falling onto power lines and knocking the power out.

Ice can also accumulate on electrical equipment, causing conductors and poles to break.

One particular risk during an ice storm for utility workers is backfeed from generators or solar panels. This can put the workers at risk of electrocution when they go to restore the grid.

Communication is also an issue. Peterborough Utilities Group works hard to ensure “everyone is on the same page” and there is constant communication between the field workers and the control room.

Workers are given ice cleats to put over their boots to prevent slips, trips and falls. The trucks are equipped with a sand and salt mixture when work needs to be done in icy areas.

When it comes to snowstorms, one of the biggest hazards are road conditions.

“You have large, rural areas that can be affected by white-out conditions, and trying to get to the work location where the line is down or where the tree has fallen on the line can be very hazardous,” says Sprackett. “The industry has many serious accidents and fatalities due to accidents on the highway in tough conditions.”

One of the main safety focuses at Peterborough Utilities Group this year is driving. The utility offers training on defensive and winter driving, and workers are taking their driving very seriously, says John Dale, power line maintainer and electrical joint health and safety committee representative at Peterborough Utilities Group.

When utility workers are doing repairs on the side of the road during a snowstorm, the other drivers pose a significant risk. There have been situations in the industry where other drivers have run into the hydro trucks and injured or killed workers.

“There are barriers and identifiers and flashing lights — everything possible is done to make sure drivers are aware of people working there,” says Sprackett. “But the conditions can come on suddenly and create road hazards.”

During the winter storms, there are concerns about cold-related injuries, such as frost nip, frostbite and hypothermia. Peterborough Utilities Group’s corporate practice on adverse weather conditions outlines the signs and symptoms of cold-related injuries and the measures to take to protect against the hazards.

“They would get information on what to look for in other workers — frost nip, extreme wind, extreme cold, lightning — so everyone is familiar with what the corporate practice is indicating to follow,” says McCracken.

Thunder and lightning storms are another concern for utility companies. Lightning is a big risk and if it is in the vicinity of workers, the crew stops work and doesn’t continue until 30 minutes after the last strike.

“It’s an electrocution hazard. You are working on things intended to conduct electricity and we create safe work zones with grounding and rubber glove techniques and live line tools but you wouldn’t want something out of the blue. You think it’s in a certain electrical state and you don’t want it changing due to lightning,” says McCracken.

Not to mention the rule of thumb for lightning is you don’t want to be the highest point — and these workers are often up in the air, he adds.

The Electrical Utility Safety Rules, published by Ontario’s IHSA and designed for Hydro One and its subsidiaries, specifically states “all work on or near apparatus where a lightning strike may cause personal injury will be suspended immediately whenever deemed to be unsafe by the on-site supervisor/worker.”

There is also the risk of lightning hitting the wire nowhere near where the technicians are working but travelling down the line to them, says Dale.

Most utility companies have very good connections to weather specialists to determine when it is safe for their workers to go out, says Sprackett.

 “Some of them have their own radar tracking system and they won’t stage their workforce into areas where there is imminent lightning,” he says. “Lightning moves on pretty quickly so it doesn’t delay the response much at all.”

To prevent incidents in or after storms of all kinds, Peterborough Utilities Group emphasizes doing things the same way during storms as they do on a normal day — not changing protections or procedures.

“If we take a shortcut because we are worried about public perception and the pressure of getting the power back on, which is definitely real in their minds, and not follow protections that keep them safe, then that is when things that are unknown can cause electrocution and injuries,” says McCracken.

When there are storms, many workers have to work long hours to get everything back up and running — which means worker fatigue can be an issue.

“It may be a short sprint effort to get the power back on or in the case of a major ice storm, it’s going to be a marathon,” says Sprackett. “When you get a large storm and response is taking weeks, 16 hours a day out in the freezing cold, doing very physical work will wear people down.”

Most utility companies have some policy in place to manage fatigue. For example, many companies permit workers to put in a maximum of 16 hours per day. Others have a sleep-time clause in the employment contracts, says Manes, so if a worker works a certain amount of consecutive hours prior to his next shift, the company requires him to go home for mandatory, paid sleep.

The industry and unions put a lot of focus on recognizing how fatigue may be settling in differently for different workers, says Sprackett.

“And it’s not necessarily a younger worker will be able to take it better than older — it’s an individual thing.”

Workers ‘highly trained’

Utility workers in Canada receive a lot of training on protecting themselves and each other, including in storm situations, says Sprackett.

“They are highly trained to not expose themselves to those hazards. They have work methods that prepare them for a professional approach to those things so their safety is not jeopardized,” he says.

They first receive training on hazards and risks associated with storm response during their apprenticeship for becoming power line technicians or utility arborists. For example, utility arborists are trained on climbing trees in icy or snowy conditions where they can’t get at the trees with bucket trucks.

Then employers follow up with training sessions for storm response to talk about the different work plans for the different types of storms.

“Every storm has its own characteristics: where to report, who to contact,” says Sprackett. “People work and implement plans based on the training, they don’t ad lib. The hazards are too dangerous and unforgiving to step outside of that regimen.”

Peterborough Utilities Group’s corporate practice on adverse weather conditions must be covered twice per year in department safety meetings. And workers generally respond well to it.

“The more reminders, the better,” says Dale. “Watch out for each other and don’t try to take a risk and injure yourself.”

When a storm causes power loss, utility workers also need to be prepared to deal with potentially angry customers. They are trained to get the most customers and high-priority locations back in service as quickly as possible, and have a process to follow of restoring the main lines first, then secondary and then individual houses — which some people do not like.

“People are out and they are pleading with the crews to get power back on in their individual houses,” says Sprackett. “There can be a lot of push and pull in these situations because emotions are running high.”

Peterborough Utilities Group has a violence and harassment policy and prevention practice to help workers learn how to de-escalate the situation if customers are particularly difficult.

Leaders support safety

Supervisors have a very important role to play when their crews are dealing with stormy weather. They need to complete additional job planning, risk assessments and monitoring of the work hours of the crew, says Dale. They also reinforce existing work habits so workers stay focused in spite of the pressure to get the power back on.

Supervisors initiate tailgate talks and impart important safety messages to workers before they commence their storm response. They also initiate a buddy system to ensure no worker is out of view of a work mate.

“Any new supervisor in the last 20 years would not, in our industry, allow workers to break any safety rules,” says Manes. “They understand the Occupational Health and Safety Act and rules and they know the consequences.”

The supervisors are also communicating frequently with the control room to get any necessary updates.

If supervisors or workers feel their safety is in jeopardy, they can refuse to work, says Manes.

“If their boss’ office is at the south end of the utility and the workers are on the north end, you can have two different weather patterns that roll through and in adverse weather conditions, if the workers and supervisors out on the job deem it unsafe, they don’t have to work,” he says.

But in all his 40 plus years in the industry, Sprackett cannot recall a work refusal happening in a storm situation.

“Everybody is at heightened awareness. Their first and foremost consideration is not to risk the safety of the employees,” he says. “We have a very good culture in our industry, generally, compared to most industries, where workers and employers are right in sync on that issue, particularly in storm situations.”

This is demonstrated in the Electrical Utility Safety Rules, which state: “When weather conditions make the job unduly hazardous, work must be suspended immediately.”

During major storms, oftentimes, utility workers need to be deployed to other jurisdictions to help out. Workers at Peterborough Utilities Group have gone to other jurisdictions to help restore power, including during the ice storm in Toronto, and they have had to call other utilities for assistance as well.

“There’s a huge pride in our line of work and we enjoy going out to other spots to help out when they are getting too much to bite off,” says Dale.

To reduce the risks of working in an unfamiliar zone, the visiting power line technicians will be accompanied by a local worker who can help them with the different mapping and system.

But the most important thing is that a commitment to working safely is shared among the various locations.

“With us, working with high voltage, it’s not like the other trades with ‘Oh well, I made a mistake.’ If you make a mistake in this one, you pay for it the rest of your life — and that’s if you live,” says Manes. “There’s a lot of good understanding about all that… and for the most part, the utility industry is all about safety, there’s no question about it.”

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of COS.