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Expert tips to boost power line protection

By Mari-Len De Guzman

As the spring season gets underway, many workers are gearing up for some outdoor work left undone during the cold, winter months. Tree trimmers, hydro workers, roof installers, construction staff and others are being cautioned to look up, look back and watch out for the hazards that be. 

Electrocution from power line contact is among the more common and potentially fatal hazards that outdoor workers face. Because power lines are located overhead, workers can easily become oblivious to their existence and the danger they pose to anyone or anything they touch. High-voltage power line contact represents 60 per cent of all occupational electrocutions in Ontario, according to statistics from the Electrical Safety Association (ESA).

“Because we work with such unforgiving hazards, we really have to keep safety as one of our key things in mind,” says Michelle Morrissey-O’Ryan, vice-president for health, safety and environment at provincial transmission and distribution firm Hydro One Networks Inc. With majority of its workforce facing electrical hazards on a daily basis, Hydro One’s health and safety program provides much focus on outdoor work activities, Morrissey says.

The high incidence of power line injuries among Canadian workers drives ESA to engage in education and awareness campaigns that aim to reduce occupational electrocution, says Ted Olechna, provincial code engineer at ESA.

So before you gear up and head out, consider these life-saving safety tips from the experts.

Plan ahead. A huge component of every Hydro One worker’s daily routine has to do with job planning which, Morrissey says, is always the first thing a worker must do before he or she begins a work day. “Job planning is basically our formal hazards identification and control process.” The planning involves identifying all hazard and risk potentials in a particular job site and devising ways to eliminate or control them. These hazards and control plan must then be communicated to all the crewmembers involved. “If they agree with it, then they follow the plan,” Morrissey says.

But the job planning does not end where the work begins. Continuous assessment of the job site needs to be maintained so in the event something changes that may affect the health and safety of the workers, the plan needs to be changed as well, Morrissey says.

Keep your distance.  When working near a power line, always maintain a safe distance, ESA’s Olechna says. Workers sometimes tend to get oblivious of their surrounding when they get too engrossed with their work. When working near a power line, a safe distance depends on the voltage of the power line, Olechna says. The lower voltage lines require people to be at a minimum distance of about three meters. The higher the voltage gets, the farther away workers should be from them, he says.

When coming across downed power lines, workers should keep a 30-meter distance and keep everyone away until hydro crews arrive. Downed power lines energize the ground they come in direct contact with and produce an electrically charged ripple effect, explains Olechna. “You know when you drop a pebble in a perfectly calm lake, it does that ripple effect? When a power line drops, it does exactly the same thing.” The voltage is very high where the ground gets in contact with the power line, and the voltage gets lesser as the ground gets farther from the power line. In other words: Run!   

Horizontal equipment.  People shouldn’t be the only ones keeping a safe gap from power lines. Work equipment should also be kept at a safe distance from power lines — at least three meters, according to the ESA. Among the primary causes of occupational power line contact incidents are metal ladders, tree trimming, construction equipment like dump truck and backhoes, and farm implements, Olechna says. The safest way to move a ladder, for instance, is to keep it at a horizontal position to avoid contact with overhead wires. Having two persons, instead of one, carry long equipment will keep the equipment in a horizontal position. When equipment needs to be raised, look up before setting the material up, he says.

Buddy system.  Under occupational health and safety regulations, people working near power lines are required to have a spotter who can serve as the worker’s eyes and ears, and can assist in ensuring the worker’s safety. “A spotter would be somebody standing outside, telling the worker how close, what to do, and all this,” Olechna says.

Look up, look behind you, look out.  A word of caution to truck drivers: use extreme caution when backing up under a power line. This is where a spotter especially comes in handy. Drivers should stay in their cab and keep the doors of the vehicle closed. Never raise the dump box under or near an energized power line. On construction sites, the ESA recommends that a plan be drawn up indicating the location of energized power lines within or around the site. This plan should be posted in the supervisor’s office, reminding workers to pay close attention to the power line locations.

Stay where you are.  If you’re in a vehicle that comes in contact with a power line, stay inside the vehicle, Olechna warns. When a vehicle comes in contact with a power line, it gets energized, Olechna says. The ESA says you don’t have to be touching a power line to be in danger. This type of incident sometimes happens when dump trucks touch a power line and workers step out of the vehicle so that they’re touching the truck and standing on the ground at the same time, a mistake that could be fatal.

Talk back.  Safety shouldn’t be a one-way street. Hydro One’s Morrissey says while it’s important to continuously provide workers with necessary safety trainings and reinforce those knowledge consistently, workers should also be given the opportunity to give their inputs around workplace health and safety. Part of Hydro One’s safety program is conducting site visits, where supervisors and safety personnel observe crewmembers at work and ensure that all safety precautions and knowledge gained from training are actually being applied at work. A significant part of the site visit is getting feedback from the workers, Morrissey says.

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