By Lisa Meiman
New fall protection regulations are changing how electrical workers access towers, transformers, communication towers and other structures by requiring climbers to use fall protection when climbing to their work positions.
Before, qualified climbers had been able to free climb towers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s revised standards, released April 1, now require electricians, electronic equipment craftsmen and linemen to use fall restraint systems or personal fall arrest systems in aerial lifts and when climbing or changing location on structures higher than four feet above a lower level.
“This is what I see as a problem: None of [the structures] were designed for fall protection. They weren’t designed with that in mind. They were designed for electrical clearance and to give us enough minimum approach distances to go in and work energized,” said Rocky Mountain Foreman III Lineman Ed Hunt. “We have common problems with no one solution that solves everything.”
To begin to address these challenges from an industry perspective, fall protection program managers from electric utilities across the continent gathered to discuss the new regulations and how to comply at a Western-hosted symposium in Loveland, Colorado, July 8-9.
“This is a great venue. We learn the most when we share ideas,” said Stephen Krause from PPL Electric Utilities, a Pennsylvania utility. “I learn more networking than I ever did from a book.”
Speakers representing utilities and equipment suppliers shared different products, methods and best practices used to keep electric workers safe on the job. “Regulations are meant to make people safe, but you can meet regulations and still be unsafe,” said Bradley Nickel from the Canada-based utility Altalink. “We didn’t want to make a safety program that gives people warm fuzzies on paper, but in reality no one uses because it is so cumbersome.”
Attendees focus on tower challenges
The symposium primarily focused on the challenges facing linemen. The largest challenge lies with lattice steel towers whose design doesn’t permit a seamless ascent. The climb is interrupted by dozens of intersecting struts, requiring the climber to secure themselves above the strut and then release their fall protection below. Then the climber repeats the action—every few feet for the equivalent of a 13-story building or more.
“Linemen are trashed by the time they get to the top of the structure,” said Reed Thorne from Ropes that Rescue. “They are so whooped by following fall protection, an accident is more likely to happen.”
The most discussed solutions were retrofitting the towers, linemen’s equipment or both. However, the forum generally agreed that it was a utility’s training program and safety culture that would make the biggest contribution toward compliance.
“It is about training and getting guys to understand why things work the way they do, how they work, doing inspections and the importance of getting a second set of eyes,” said Chris Delavera from Buckingham Manufacturing.
John Anthony from Dominion, a large utility with transmission and distribution in North Carolina and Virginia, added, “We also hire people who are change averse. They are the last people to get on board with change. They have the mindset that they have been doing this work for years now and are not dead yet, so why do they have to change? To be successful, a change needs to feel comfortable to them and easy to use.”
Participants left with many ideas to take back to their utilities. Additionally, Western is evaluating holding another fall protection conference later this year because of the symposium’s success. Future proposed symposiums could include more discussion for electricians and other electrical workers. “Fall protection is a work in progress,” Anthony concluded. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer.”
“If there is one message you take out of here from me is: We have to move beyond the idea of compliance and really focus on the spirit of compliance,” said Administrator Mark Gabriel. “It is not about having safety regulations; it is about the spirit behind what we are going to do to be safe.
Western’s fall protection program
Western boasts an impressive safety record. The agency’s incident, injury and lost-time rates are well below the industry average. Western has also received the American Public Power Association’s Electric Utility Safety Award of Excellence for the past two years. “Our safety record isn’t by accident,” said Gabriel. “It is by the diligent work of our safety teams and by every employee at Western.”
Western’s fall protection program, started in the 1990s, recently adopted a “no one falls” approach toward field work, which the committee hopes will focus workers on eliminating the hazard instead of just complying with the regulation. “I believe that is what OSHA really means. What they are really driving and describing is that no one falls,” said Hunt.
Safety and Occupational Health Manager Patrick Nies added, “We are worried about preventing falls, not the OSHA regulations. If you address the hazard, then there is no need to worry about the violation.”