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T&D Best Practices for Crew Leaders

In iP’s earlier installments of the Supervisory Series (April 2011, June 2011 and August 2011), we discussed the importance of career development for lineworkers targeted for supervisory responsibilities. We also discussed the supervisory skills required to be effective as a crew leader or foreman, including a full article on human behavior and communication skills.

In this installment, we will discuss a concept of fieldwork known as best practices. As you will see, it is not enough that the foreman be effective as a personnel supervisor. It is just as important to understand the work practices the industry has accepted as critical in maintaining safety for crew members.

Defining Best Practices
“Best practices” is a term that should not be used loosely. It is a concept that is widely accepted in transmission and distribution (T&D) construction and maintenance. Respected organizations such as IEEE, the IBEW, OSHA and others recognize that certain work practices reduce the opportunity for injuries. These time-proven safe work practices then become best practices and critical parts of any T&D operation’s safety program.

In 2008, an OSHA strategic partnership that included electrical transmission and distribution construction contractors and trade associations said that a best practice is a process or method that can be applied throughout the electrical industry that will assist companies in reducing the frequency of incidents. Here are the guidelines they used in identifying a best practice:
• Is this feasible for lineworkers to perform?
• Is this currently being done in the industry?
• Can this be implemented?
• Can all affected parties comply with this best practice?
• Is this repeatable?
• Is this objectively measureable?

Potentially, there are a large number of best practices that may fit within these guidelines. In this article, we will discuss a few of the more critical work practices that can help a crew foreman keep his people safe on the job.

Pre-Job Briefings
Planning and discussing the work to be done seems like such a trivial practice that we should not even need to discuss it. Yet this best practice is often the most overlooked or neglected part of the job. In the field, we may hear this called the tailboard meeting or safety briefing, but it is all the same thing: a process in which all crew members participate by discussing the job to be done, the hazards that may be encountered, how to mitigate those hazards, what tools and equipment will be used, and who will be responsible for each part of the job. This is also a good time to include an emergency action plan – exactly what will be done if an emergency occurs.

OSHA regulation 1910.269(c) further explains the components of an effective job briefing. An additional reference can be found in the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC, ANSI C2-Part 4).

Though not required to be documented by OSHA, best practices include not only documenting the briefing, but having each crew member sign the document as evidence that they participated. How often should a job briefing be done? It depends on the work being done that day. If, for example, the crew will be replacing streetlight bulbs all day, one briefing in the morning will probably suffice – with a review of traffic conditions at each site. If the crew is changing out an energized transformer this morning at one site and then replacing a pole at another site this afternoon, a briefing should be done at each site.

It is a fact that in most incident investigations, no evidence is found that a briefing was held or, if it was, the form was “pencil-whipped” and woefully inadequate. Pre-job briefings should be a routine part of each crew’s safety practices, documented and taken seriously by the crew foreman.

Pre-Use Inspection of PPE and Cover Gear
Personal protective equipment (PPE) and insulating equipment (cover gear) are engineered to provide a barrier of protection for the lineworker. Based on the voltages encountered at the job site, different types of PPE and cover gear will be used. All of this equipment is subject to failure, however. If the rubber gloves being used can no longer fully protect a worker, for example, that worker will have a false sense of security and could pay a very high price for this equipment failure.

Fortunately, every lineworker can reduce the chance of this type of failure by routinely inspecting equipment before use. First, the equipment should be inspected to ensure it can safely be used on the maximum voltage that may be encountered. Then, a thorough inspection of the equipment should be made, as recommended by the manufacturer. The issue date and test date should be reviewed and all equipment should be examined for damage, wear and contamination. If any problems are found, the equipment should immediately be removed from service.

Several OSHA regulations apply to in-service care and use of insulating equipment and live-line tools, including 1910.137(b)(2)(iv) and 1910.269(j)(2). ASTM references include F478, F479, F496 and F1236.

Proper care and use of tools and equipment includes the best practice of pre-use inspections. Pre-use may mean that the rubber gloves being used get inspected multiple times per day, a small price to pay for the life-protecting features this equipment is providing. Crew foremen should ensure pre-use inspections are a routine part of any job.

Qualified Observer
The term “qualified observer” may be new to some lineworkers. Aren’t we all supposed to be observing each other for safe work practices on the job? Sure, but in this case the qualified observer is truly a special observer with very specific responsibilities. This crew member is critical when lineworkers are in the air performing energized work.

The qualified observer should be capable of identifying nominal voltages and all components that are energized, and judging minimum approach distances, as well as be knowledgeable about all the safe work practices required for the job being observed. This observer is an extra set of eyes for crew members working in the energized zone. He will provide warnings to help the lineworkers know when their safety is compromised and he will be the one to initiate the emergency action plans should they be needed.

Can the qualified observer do other things while he is observing? No. While crew members are in the air performing their work on an energized system, the qualified observer must keep his eyes and mind glued to the workers and the system. This should be his only job at this time.

OSHA regulation 1910.269(p) elaborates on the role of the qualified observer. We often see the crew foreman assuming the role of qualified observer when his crew is doing energized work. This is certainly acceptable; however, as stated above, this should be a sole focus for the foreman at the time. If the foreman allows himself to be distracted during critical parts of the job, this best practice won’t work. “I just looked away for a couple of seconds …” is all it takes for a fatal electrocution.

Working Position
Working from a bucket truck, in hooks off a pole or while standing on an insulated platform requires that the lineworker be aware of his working position relative to the lines and equipment being worked on. Best practices say that no one should work from a position in which a slip, fall or even a shock would then bring the worker’s body in contact or in further contact with energized parts of the system. Generally, this means working from below the lines or equipment.

Maintaining a safe working position is easy to forget for the lineworker. It is often more comfortable to be above the lines and work with your arms down rather than hold your arms up for extended periods of time. It’s also possible that, as the job progresses, the lineworker will get so focused on the work that he forgets safe work positioning. This is where the qualified observer comes in. The lineworker may need to be reminded of where he is in relation to the energized lines and equipment around him.

OSHA regulation 1910.269(l)(4) elaborates on the working position for lineworkers. The foreman should be well aware of the importance of work positioning for his crew members and recognize that this best practice may need to be routinely enforced to be effective.

Cradle to Cradle and Ground to Ground
When lineworkers are doing energized work using the rubber glove method, rubber protective insulating gloves and sleeves rated for the voltage exposure should be worn. The question of when to put on this protective gear has been an object of debate for years. Should this PPE be put on before the lineworker leaves the ground or can he wait until the minimum approach distance rules kick in? In other words, can he wait until he is near the energized lines and equipment? Utilities and contractors vary in their policies regarding this question.

OSHA will not decide for you. Regulation 1910.333(c)(1), part of 1910.333(c), “Working on or near exposed energized parts,” states, “… near enough to them [exposed live parts] for employees to be exposed to any hazard they present.” Regulation 1910.333(c)(2) goes on to explain that “… Such persons shall be capable of working safely on energized circuits and shall be familiar with the proper use of special precautionary techniques, personal protective equipment, insulating and shielding materials, and insulated tools.”

The question remains: When do we put on our rubber gloves and sleeves? The best practice says the safety margin increases when lineworkers have on this PPE before they leave the cradle of the bucket truck or before they leave the ground when climbing. Further, this PPE is not removed until the bucket is back in the cradle or the climber is back on the ground. What if the worker in the bucket needs to take a break and drink some water? Can he back away from the energized system, remove his gloves and just rest awhile? Best practice says he shouldn’t. He should take the bucket to the truck cradle and then take his break.

This particular best practice may be one of the more difficult ones to enforce. However, many companies have found that, over time, the rule becomes a habit and resistance by the workers is reduced. The foreman will need to stay vigilant in his enforcement of this best practice, but consistent use of the cradle-to-cradle, ground-to-ground rule is an important part of lineworker safe work practices.

Best Practices as Leading Indicators
The few best practices discussed above are certainly not an exhaustive list of industry T&D work practices considered important in a safety program, but they are good examples of the types of work practices generally accepted as effective in reducing injuries and fatalities.

Additionally, these practices are observable and the frequency of use and non-use is measurable. This is important because these best practices are considered leading indicators. The more they are used, the fewer incidents we have; the less they are used, the more incidents we have. There is a direct correlation between best practice use and incident rates. Behavioral-based safety observations can help us determine the level of compliance in the use of many behaviors, including best practices. By observing, measuring and analyzing trends, we can help the foreman head off problems that may be developing on his crew – another tool in the supervisor’s toolbox.

Best vs. Better
One final thought about best practices: Maybe they aren’t. Can best practices be improved? Certainly. There are many job sites and many variables in T&D construction and maintenance. No one can know it all. Our crew leader needs to be somewhat flexible as he and the other crew members identify job hazards and what it will take to stay safe working around those hazards.

However, industry best practices are an excellent foundation from which to start. Building on these safe work practices should always be encouraged.

The foreman’s job is a complex one. When we can help him know what works in the industry and what doesn’t, the learning curve gets shorter and the crew gets safer and more productive. The win-win becomes a win-win-win: employees, company and customers.

About the Author: Ronald J. Schenk, CUSP, is the executive director of the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction (ISPC), an electric utility industry association focusing on safety and training for lineworkers. His career in the utility industry spans 21 years and includes 14 years on staff with an Engineering News-Record (ENR) Top 5 powerline contractor where he served as director of training for 1,800 lineworkers. For more information, call 866-880-1380 or email Schenk at

Leadership Development

Ronald J. Schenk, CUSP

Our mission is to advocate for safety and health in the powerline construction and maintenance industry by: Researching and developing, safety, training and health standards Educating, training and assessing skills Defining best practices Auditing programs and advising management Advising regulatory agencies