Safety is always a top priority at public power utilities, but this last year has pushed us to be more focused on safety than usual. We have had to manage daily risks to our own lives and those of our families, and, as potential carriers of the coronavirus, we have had to be mindful of whether or not our actions put others at risk. In the electric sector, particularly for those workers who are the hands-on managers of electric infrastructure – known as “lineworkers” – risk management is their lifeblood. Their focus on safety 24/7/365 enables them to keep the lights on for their customers while also protecting themselves from injury or even death.
Working on lines while electricity is flowing brings the risk of being electrocuted. Lineworkers also contend with the challenge of maintaining or repairing electric lines that are situated high above the ground on distribution and transmission poles. Some even work underground. Being able to repair problems to lines while the power remains on is like fixing the plane while it’s in the air, but it keeps the lights on for most customers and essential services going. All of these risks are why lineworkers train.
There is an apprenticeship for lineworkers before they can become full “journeymen” in the field. This is a crucial step in the development of the safety culture that is so critical to minimizing accidents. Lineworkers are trained in how to work around electricity, climb poles, operate bucket trucks (that can help maneuver workers up and down poles without climbing), carry a fellow injured lineworker up and down a pole, and in CPR and other basic first aid. The facilities (power plants, dams, wind turbines, etc.) that produce electricity have their own unique safety concerns and challenges. Personnel working in or around such facilities and infrastructure must also be trained on, and constantly adhere to, safety protocols.
The American Public Power Association is engaged in multiple activities to underscore – and enhance – our members’ culture of safety. The centerpiece of our efforts is a well-recognized safety manual that applies standards, regulations, and guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as well as other industry rules and recommendations, like those from the National Electrical Safety Code, to the public power utility environment. APPA first developed this manual for the public power workforce in 1955. A task force reviews the safety manual every few years and helps APPA staff update the manual where needed. The task force also accepts change proposals from APPA members. As we assimilate lessons learned from COVID-19 response, for example, we will update the manual accordingly.
We also look at a public power utility’s safety record when evaluating its status as a Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3), a peer-reviewed recognition that utilities must reapply for every three years. As an enhancement to that process, we recently added an online data tracking and analysis platform called the eSafety Tracker. We developed this platform after the proven success of our eReliability Tracker, which now has more than 500 utilities that provide reliability data and compare their metrics with other utilities. This system has given public power utilities greater insight into a variety of reliability challenges and helped them become even more reliable. We hope to do the same in the safety space with the eSafety Tracker – with the idea that benchmarking and data analysis will continue to add to and improve the safety culture to further mitigate accidents in the public power workforce.
Last but not least, we encourage our member utilities to participate in the APPA Safety Awards. Entries are due January 31. We conduct the Safety Awards to emphasize the importance of safe working habits, to recognize utilities whose employees achieve particularly safe operations, and to collect and share safety benchmarking information. APPA has conducted the Safety Awards for more than 50 years and if you are with a utility that hasn’t participated in this program in the past, we hope this year your utility will join in.
And for the public - we hope you will help your local utility by remembering to practice safety around electricity. A primary concern is making sure that you never approach a downed power line. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to tell if a power line is on just by looking at it, and the ground around it may be energized. Call your local utility immediately if you see such a situation.
As we’ve taken a renewed look at safety this year, let us not forget how we all play a part in keeping each other safe. The pandemic might have prioritized new safety practices for many, but safety has long been a priority for public power.