When the lights go out, safety comes first for lineworkers
by Paul Wesslund, Contributing Columnist
You can learn a lot about power outages and restoration by watching a utility crew at work from a safe distance.
The first thing you’ll notice is the deliberate, careful pace. Team members deploy signs to alert motorists. They mark the work area with orange cones. They wear hardhats and fire-protective clothing, put on heavy rubber gloves and spread insulating blankets over the wires. Those gloves have been tested by a machine that blows air into them to make sure there’s not a pinhole opening that could allow a deadly electric current to pass through.
That morning, lineworkers likely huddled at the back of a truck to discuss what each of them would be doing that day, with an emphasis on safety. It’s a best practice in the industry, so common it’s often called a “tailgate meeting” or “toolbox talk.”
THE SAFETY HABIT
There are a lot of reasons your electricity might go off, with weather by far the leading cause. But to a lineworker, all outage repairs have one thing in common — safety.
Safety is common sense, but it’s also drilled into the utility workers. Co-op leaders make it clear that skipping any safety measure or procedure is a fireable offense. Line crews attend lectures aimed at driving home the importance of safety protocols.
The next thing you can learn from watching a line crew at work comes from seeing what task they’re doing. There’s a good chance they’re replacing old equipment. Poles and transformers wear out, and failing equipment is one cause of outages. The crew you watch might be restoring an equipment outage, or they might be switching an old device to prevent a future outage.
You may see them replacing a downed utility pole, a painstaking process of removing the old and hauling in the new, using trucks designed for the job.
TREES VERSUS LINES
The pole may be down because a motorist ran into it — another cause of outages. Or it could be weather-related. Wind, ice and fires cause about 80% of power outages. One characteristic of those natural disasters is that the damage can be widespread. If one pole is down, others could be, as well. Crews likely will be repeating the pole-replacement process, one job at a time.
It’s also possible the crew you’re watching will be trimming trees. Trees are a common cause of outages, as wind and nearby branches can knock wires to the ground. Electric cooperatives devote time and resources to trimming trees and shrubs near power lines.
Wildlife is a fairly common cause of outages. Squirrels and snakes routinely get into substations and utility equipment with poor results for critters and customers. Sometimes crews need to investigate and correct the cause, which can take a while. Often, the system will reset itself after only a brief power interruption.
Lessons from the lineworkers? Outages can be caused by a variety of factors. Restoring power is an intricate process in a complex utility system. And safety, for crews and the community, will always be the top priority.
Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.