Answering the Call: Can We Reduce Line Worker Risk?

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Worker on Pole

Have you ever had someone ask you to go someplace or do something that made you feel uncomfortable, such as travel to a bad part of town or at a risky time of night? Anticipating all the bad things that might happen, you probably wished there was an alternative option. And what if you arrived and found the purpose of the trip was completely unnecessary?

That is what a utility truck roll can be like. 

We’ve all heard that truck rolls are simply a fact of life and a cost of doing business. A line crew responding to an outage is a necessity, and I have blogged about the expense aspects of such trips. But what if the truck roll was unnecessary? Should we consider the risk of bad things happening? Certainly–if there are alternatives.

In a recent article in USA Today, electrical power-line installers and repairers ranked 15th among the top 25 most dangerous civilian jobs in America. In 2016, the fatality rate for line workers was 14.6 per 100,000 workers. U.S. Department of Transportation statistics also tell us that, on average, for every 500,000 miles traveled, we can expect to experience a crash. To underscore these points, one clever utility proactively placed a sign at its yard exits reading: ‘You are about to enter the most dangerous part of your day.’

No one in our industry questions the dangerous nature of line work. Line workers often work at elevated heights, travel long distances in large utility vehicles, work outdoors in challenging weather conditions, and in some situations work for extended hours handling storm restoration. These heroic men and women know the risks and step in anyway, and I for one appreciate that deeply.

But why are they called, and can the calls be avoided?

One major cause of truck rolls is our aging utility infrastructure, where reclosing into full fault current puts a constant strain on grid components. Fortunately, technology is available today that can and does limit energy damage on utility systems. In doing so, utilities can defer truck rolls potentially to a more controlled preventive-maintenance outage.

Another common cause for call-outs is temporary faults that become sustained outages. Frustrating to crews, utilities see hundreds of trouble tickets with a cause listed along the lines of “fuse blown” or “no cause found.” Transients, momentaries, and blinks unnecessarily cause a fuse to blow and a truck to roll, pulling line workers into their most dangerous type of work. 

Technology also is available that saved more than 2.4 billion customer outage minutes in 2017. In addition to improved reliability, utilities that deploy this technology are seeing millions of dollars in annual savings from reduced truck rolls.

Recently, we began to see economic cases for capital investment that include safety improvements from eliminating line-crew exposure to hazards such as traffic crashes. There is also a growing recognition of the “soft” savings gained by limiting risk and eliminating exposure to the hazards, although these are more difficult to quantify. We recommend this element of the justification be added as a critical consideration.

Requiring line crews to respond to outages will never go away. But we can reduce the number of outages, thereby reducing line-worker exposure to risky calls, called only when needed.

In the Comments section below, I’d be interested in learning your thoughts on how to reduce line-worker exposure to unnecessary risks.


Jerry Yakel

Publication Date

May 11, 2018