Injuries and deaths from falls are a problem in the utility industry in Japan and regulations are changing to keep workers safer when working on power poles and transmission towers.
The U.S. utility industry worked through its own regulation shift three years ago, when OSHA required an upgrade to the traditional body or safety belt that linemen had been using for decades.
The Japanese executives wanted to learn how American workers and companies adapted to the new rules. (In EBEW photo above, After a little practice, a Japanese visitor and made his way up the pole - all the more impressive as they don’t use wood to make power poles in Japan.)
“They could have approached anyone to talk about the safety improvements the U.S. has made. I think it is a great credit to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) that they came to us,” said IBEW Safety Department Director Dave Mullen. “We were founded on safety and that reputation has clearly spread around the world.”
Before the regulation change in the U.S., required fall protection for utility workers was similar in Japan and the U.S. In fact, it would have been familiar to linemen from the earliest days of the Brotherhood: the body belt. The body, or safety, belt is made up of two loops, joined together: one goes around the lineman’s waist, the other goes around the pole they are climbing.
But there has always been a problem with the body belt as fall protection, Mullen said.
“It just doesn’t do a great job. It works fine to position a lineman for work, but protecting someone from falling or from getting hurt by a fall? It has problems,” Mullen said.
Body belts can slip down a pole. Then, when the stop comes, it is all at once, a sudden jolt to a very vulnerable place: the lower back. The torso above the belt and the legs below continue accelerating after the belt stops moving. The deceleration can hyperextend or even break the spine. Even when workers have stopped climbing and are working, there is nothing to stop a lineman from losing balance to the side and rotating around the pole into a fall.
Since 2014, body belts have been banned by OSHA as a fall arrest system for electrical generation and distribution, and rules require both different harnesses -- rock-climbing style ones that go around the waist and legs or full body harnesses that incorporate the torso as well—and more secure ways of attaching those harnesses so workers either can’t fall or can’t fall far.
Mullen spent the day with two executives from an industry group representing the country’s utilities and a researcher for a Japanese manufacturer of industrial electrical equipment including Mitsubishi Research Institute’s Smart Energy Group Manager Hironori Iwasaki, so they could see how the equipment, workers and utilities have adapted.
They requested a field trip to see the gear in use. Mullen, with the help of Fourth District International Vice President Brian G. Malloy, arranged for a visit to Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative’s technical center in Gainesville, Virginia.
They were met by Manassas, Va., Local 1737 Business Manager Eric Stewart and members Justin Bettis and Emmanuel “Manny” Marfo, who are both part of Novec’s lineman rodeo team.
Bettis showed the executives how efficiently linemen use the more robust fall arrest systems while working on distribution poles.
Bettis even strapped one of them into a harness and sent him up a (short) pole of his own.
They also demonstrated the use of the full body harnesses, which Novec workers use primarily when working out of buckets.
The executives also requested a question-and-answer session with Mullen, who also brought in an OSHA representative and safety executives from Pepco Holdings, a subsidiary of Exelon, one of the largest utilities in the U.S.
The two-hour hour discussion covered everything from how workers and utilities collaborated with manufacturers to improve products to how utilities can empower workers to offer feedback to how American safety regulations are written and amended.
“Everyone is looking for a silver bullet, but what I wanted them to understand is that safety is never just one thing, especially not the equipment,” Mullen said. “We are safest and our companies most successful when there is collaboration between companies, workers, regulators and the manufacturers. I hope they saw a model of how we do it here that helps them back in Japan.”