Changing the game: Technology makes for safer utility work

Hard hats and harnesses still have a place in keeping utility workers safe, but public power utilities are increasingly embracing new technologies to help provide safer working environments.

From deploying unmanned drones to inspect hydroelectric dams to using infrared cameras that can locate hot spots in substations and switching off breakers remotely, technology now stands alongside steel-toed boots as a cornerstone of some utility safety programs.

Up close from a distance

For the first time in Grant County Public Utility District’s 81-year history, the utility has a drone pilot on staff. The drone operator’s full-time job is security supervisor at the PUD, and he mostly uses the drone for aerial security surveillance around the PUD’s dams, substations, and transmission assets, but he has also helped to give utility crews an eye in the sky during a variety of operations. 

Grant PUD serves about 40,000 customers along the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state, and it started using drones about four years ago to inspect its Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams on the Columbia River and for security surveillance around its dams and substations.

Before deploying drones, Grant PUD inspected its dams with a utility worker standing on the skids of a helicopter and peering through a pair of binoculars, while the pilot navigated unpredictable winds and dodged high-voltage transmission lines. 

Now a drone armed with an infrared camera can hover several hundred feet over the Columbia River and within a foot of a structure and beam back high-definition photos to engineers and dam operators safely parked on the shore.

“Using the drone has been super handy,” Brandon Little, an engineer with Grant PUD, said. “We get great looks at monolith or various other components in the spillway. The drone is much faster than scheduling a crane, crew and man basket, and it’s much, much safer.”

Grant PUD also uses drones to get aerial photos of earth embankments around the dams that over time can show if there has been any movement, Little said.

Cameras also now assist employees during critical lifts with cranes. The camera allows confirmation of clearances without requiring an employee to enter the overhead safety zone. This keeps workers farther away from objects that could potentially fall during heavy lifts.

Getting ahead of hazards

The Naperville Electric Utility serves 60,312 customers in the city of Naperville, Illinois, and has been using a variety of technologies to help keep workers safe and give it longer lead times when doing preventive maintenance.

The public power utility, which this past June celebrated its 120th year in service, uses its Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system to remotely control breakers at all 16 of its substations. 

Closing breakers remotely keeps lineworkers away from faulty equipment while it is being deenergized.

“If a piece of equipment is failing or needs to be removed from service, no one will be in the vicinity of that device while it’s being deenergized,” said Brian Groth, deputy director at Naperville’s Electric Department.

After a series of hot days, Naperville crews will inspect substations from a distance using infrared cameras that show the temperature of pieces of equipment. Those thermal photos are then logged and cross-checked each time the substation is inspected.

This allows crews to get ahead of any potential problems, while also keeping workers away from equipment that may be stressed.

“In a world of long lead times for parts, we can order things when they start to get a little warm, as opposed to having a burning pile of steel,” Groth said.

He said that Naperville is focused on preventive maintenance, and the use of thermal photography helps the utility chart and plan for controlled outages.

“Any time you have a controlled outage, people are much safer,” Groth said. “People aren’t rushed, they aren’t hurrying to try to get customers back into service, which just makes for a much safer environment.”

Staying informed

Snohomish County PUD, which serves 350,000 customers just north of Seattle, outfits all of its utility crews with iPads that can access a map of the PUD’s entire network, as well as a variety of other maps and documents, and can be linked to the utility’s control room during storm recovery operations.

The iPads, which were put into use about three years ago, may have already prevented serious injury.

Jake Larson, journeyman lineworker with Snohomish PUD, said a crew was out restoring power at night in late August this year when they came upon a private bridge in rural Monroe, Washington. The crew used the iPad to access the utility’s database of private bridges to see if the wooden structure was certified to hold a 40,000-pound line truck. The bridge was not certified, so the crew parked the truck and walked their gear across the bridge.

In September, that same bridge collapsed under the weight of a truck carrying septic vaults. The driver of the truck wasn’t seriously hurt in the accident, but the truck crashed through the bridge and ended up on its side in the creek below.

Jake Morgan, a fellow journeyman lineman with Snohomish PUD, described the utility-issued iPads as a “game changer.”

“It’s the most valuable piece of equipment in the truck,” Morgan said. “It not only gives us a map of our system, but it hyperlinks to photos and inspections reports. We can link a program to Google Maps, put the equipment number in, and drive right to a location.”

If crews are restoring power during a storm, they’ll get a switching order from the PUD’s control center, pull up a map, “then we can double, or triple check, to see if every point on the line is properly open,” Morgan said.

“We can make sure that every switch along the line is open, so there’s no chance of the line being energized,” he said.

Bolstering security

In the picturesque Flathead Valley of Montana, technology is used not only for the physical safety of workers, but in the virtual world to keep the Flathead Valley Cooperative network from being breached.

Mike Parrish spent 20 years in Naval intelligence and is now director of information technology at the co-op. He leads a team of IT professionals in defending against potential cyberattacks.

“The biggest risk we protect against — and all small municipal governments and utilities worry about this — and that’s getting hit with some kind of ransomware that shuts us down,” Parrish said. 

He said the utility uses a layered approach to security, with a variety of different systems to protect the co-op’s network and consumer information. The utility also deploys a suite of cameras and surveillance technologies to keep its headquarters safe.

“Kalispell and the Flathead Valley is really a small and friendly place, so the last thing we wanted was to make this place look like Ft. Knox,” Parrish said. “So, we tried to deploy technology in a common sense way, so that it didn’t look like a fortification.”

Improving tools

The biggest development might be the widespread acceptance of lightweight, battery-operated, ergonomically designed tools that now fill utility trucks.

“I remember back nine years ago when we didn’t have battery-powered tools,” Larson, the journeyman from Snohomish PUD, said. “We now have impact guns, drills, saws — you name it — [which are] light and ergonomic. It means I can work for 40-plus years in the trades and be able to do what I want with my life, outside of work, and not have to go through multiple shoulder or back surgeries.”

Craig Bressan, senior manager of safety and industrial training at Grant PUD, said the use of lighter battery-powered tools has cut way down on the number of repetitive motion and back injuries at the utility.

“It’s all been redesigned to be lighter and ergonomic,” he said. “Linemen are lifting much lighter weights now. It’s been a huge game changer.”

New tools, same mindset

Even with a wealth of information and technology at a lineworker’s fingertips, safety still comes down to awareness and teamwork.

Lineworkers at Snohomish PUD might not have to run around in the dark wondering where to go, Morgan said, but the job still presents its dangers.

“The iPad doesn’t make us any safer. Good work habits and training, and just looking out for each other, is what it comes down to,” Morgan said. “The tools allow us to access information and that makes our jobs easier and more efficient, but ultimately it’s me looking out for Jake and him looking out for me.”

“It’s nice to have all these tools at our disposal, it makes it easier do what’s best for that situation and helps us be more efficient, but safety really comes down to us,” he said.