OSHA in its preamble to the Electric Power Generation, Transmission and Distribution Standard (29 CFR Part 1910.269) states that “overall accident incidence rates for the electric services industry (that is, the electric utility industry, SIC-491) are slightly lower than corresponding rates for the private sector as a whole” and that “except for electrical and fall hazards, electric utility employees face hazards that are similar in nature and degree to those encountered in many other industries” (OSHA 1994).The preamble goes on to cite US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) files identifying the major sources of injury for electric utilities:
- being “struck by or against an object”, leading to sprains and strains, cuts, lacerations and contusions/bruises.
The preamble specifically notes that electric shock does not constitute a major (or frequently reported) injury category. However, labour, industry and OSHA files reveal that electrical accidents are the most frequent type of fatal or serious injuries in the electrical utility industry, followed by motor vehicle accidents, falls and “struck by/crushed.”
Many other hazards confront electrical utility workers in performing the varied tasks required by employers. The authors of individual articles in this chapter note many of these in detail; here I will simply mention some of the hazardous exposures.
Musculoskeletal injuries are the most common injuries occurring in this physically active workforce and include:
- vibration white fingers due to jackhammer use
- whiplash due to motor vehicle accidents
- low-back sprain
- head injury
- foot and ankle trauma
- torn medial meniscus.
Electrical workers can work in a wide variety of environments: they climb to the top of rural transmission towers and splice cables in manholes under busy city streets; they swelter on the top floors of the power stations in summer and shiver as they repair overhead distribution lines downed by a blizzard. The physical forces that confront the workers are enormous. A power plant, for example, pushes steam under such pressure that a ruptured pipe may mean scalding and suffocation. Physical hazards in plants in addition to heat include noise, electromagnetic fields (EMF), ionizing radiation in nuclear facilities and asphyxiation in confined spaces. Asbestos exposure has been a major source of morbidity and litigation, and concerns are being raised about other insulating materials. Chemicals such as caustics, corrosives and solvents are widely used. Plants also employ workers in specialized jobs like fire-fighting or scuba diving (to inspect water intake and discharge systems), who are exposed to the unique hazards intrinsic to those tasks.
While modern nuclear power stations have reduced workers’ radiation exposure during normal operating periods, substantial exposure may occur during maintenance and refuelling shut-downs. Excellent radiation monitoring capabilities are required to properly protect workers entering radiation areas during these periods. The fact that many contract workers may enter a nuclear plant during a shut-down and then move on to another plant, creates a need for close coordination between regulatory and industry authorities in monitoring the total annual exposure for an individual worker.
The transmission and distribution systems share some of the hazards of the power station, but also are characterized by unique work exposures. The enormous voltages and currents intrinsic to the system predispose to fatal electric shock and severe burns when workers ignore safety procedures or are inadequately protected. As transformers overheat, they may catch fire and explode, releasing oil and possibly PCBs and their breakdown products. Electrical substations share with power stations the potential of exposure to insulation, EMF and confined space hazards. In the distribution system, the cutting, burning and splicing of electrical cable expose workers to lead and other metals both as dusts and fumes. The underground structures which support the system must also be considered potential confined-space hazards. Pentachlophenol, a pesticide used to preserve wooden utility poles, is an exposure that is somewhat unique to the distribution system.
Finally, meter readers and outdoor workers may be exposed to street violence; fatalities in the course of robbery attempts are not unknown to this workforce.