Public Power Magazine

Fall Arrest Equipment Requirements Are Coming, Eventually


From the March-April 2013 issue (Vol. 71, No. 2) of Public Power

Originally published January 28, 2013

By William Atkinson
January 28, 2013

Talk to utility workers about the need for more protective fall arrest equipment and you’ll hear a familiar refrain: "Heck no. We know what we're doing. Please don't tell us how to do our jobs."

There was a proposal to add fall arrest to the American Public Power Association Safety Manual in 2012, according to APPA Engineering Services Senior Vice President Michael Hyland, but the task force reviewing manual revisions was divided on the issue, so it was not included in the manual’s 15th edition. But Hyland believes utility leaders should look at professional sports, such as football, hockey, and NASCAR, and realize how protective equipment and other measures have gradually been added over the years and eventually become accepted. 

Fall arrest is garnering greater attention in the utility industry. "Even up until five years ago, you had about 5 percent or fewer of utilities looking at fall arrest systems, but this number is increasing," said Hyland.

While falls may not be common, those that occur can be extremely serious both in terms of injuries to employees and costs, both for the utility and the employee.

"Some utilities train their apprentices in full fall arrest, but don't require that they wear the equipment after training," said Hyland. "However, they find that a lot of the people coming out of apprentice school continue to wear it voluntarily."

Some utilities, however, just want to be prepared. They recognize that fall protection will either become an industry standard, in which case the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration would likely create a regulation; or OSHA will create a regulation first, and then it will become an industry standard.

"It will be one or the other," Hyland said.

Michael B. Byrd, supervisor, safety and training, for ElectriCities of North Carolina and former chair of the APPA Safety Committee, agrees with Hyland's assessment. Byrd started as a lineman with Progress Energy, formerly Carolina Power & Light, in 1971. "I did free-climbing without fall arrest equipment from 1971 to 1989," he said. "There were times when my coworkers and I slid down poles or fell off poles." Byrd left the field in 1989 and began training lineworkers, eventually coming to ElectriCities of North Carolina. Since that time, Progress Energy and Duke, even before they merged, went to 100 percent fall protection. The industry is moving in a similar direction. "OSHA still says it is not required, but that regulation may change later this year," said Byrd. "In either case, I am an advocate of some sort of fall protection.”

Most member utilities of ElectriCities of North Carolina favor use of fall protection equipment, according to Byrd. "We support between 70 and 80 members, and most of them are already using fall protection," he said. "A few still allow their workers to free-climb poles. In addition, there are still some seasoned linemen who have been around a long time and are a bit reluctant to make the change." However, Byrd has found, attrition is taking care of that, and the new workers coming in are learning to climb with fall protection.

Santee Cooper in South Carolina has a strong fall protection program. "We are constantly looking at how we can better equip our at-risk personnel, to make sure they have all of the tools, training and techniques that they need in order to be as safe as possible," said Neil James, manager of distribution operations.  In late 2008, Santee Cooper’s safety committee created a group to look at falls that had occurred at the utility over the previous 25 years. That investigation showed that fall arrest belts would contribute to a decline in accidents.

Santee Cooper field staff were involved in review and selection of specific brands of fall protection belts. The utility phased in its requirement for the protective equipment. Lineworkers with three or fewer years of experience were required to use the belts beginning July 1, 2009. More experienced personnel were required to begin using the belts no later than Jan. 1, 2011.

"They are now very comfortable with the belts, and they use them in all of their climbing operations," said James. "They also use them as part of our annual pole-top rescue training."

New lineworkers spend the first day or two on the job at Santee Cooper with trainers who instruct them on the correct adjustment and use of the fall protection equipment. Once new employees are in their assigned areas, they practice with supervision. They can climb up to four feet without additional fall protection equipment. Above that height, they must be attached to a pole-top fall arrest device or a boom cable from a nearby linetruck. Belts are now a regular part of safety equipment.

After successfully completing a climbing certification class, lineworkers are allowed to climb with their fall arrest belts. 

The devices work well as long as they are adjusted and used properly, said James. But if the equipment is not properly adjusted, falls can occur.

James attributes Santee Cooper’s success in gaining lineworker support for fall arrest equipment to four things:

  • Staff carefully explained why they were looking at the equipment, giving employees statistics on falls and resulting injuries.
  • The utility arranged for field staff to look at different brands that had been identified as best suited for the utility's environment, and then allowed the workers to select the two brands they felt the most comfortable with.
  • The mandate was phased in for veteran linemen.
  • Senior management was supportive of the decision and the subsequent costs.

Thanks to careful planning, Santee Cooper had 97 percent initial buy-in from the lineworkers. "We had a few who resisted, saying they were good enough climbers and didn't need it," he said. "However, they eventually came on board."

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