Crane-safety experts’ observations about the hazards of power lines, taking safety precautions and the need for training
Working on trees around power lines can be a killer – literally. But in tree work involving cranes, added danger often comes from another area: complacency.
“The biggest thing we come across is complacency in terms of pre-op inspection and proper setup for stabilization,” says Hans Tielmann, III, CTSP, a nationally accredited crane instructor and owner of Noble Oak, LLC – a second-year TCIA member company based in Flemington, New Jersey – and NJ Crane Expert, also of Flemington. “Another thing that is really common is that, while a lot of operators know they need to have certain documented processes in place, they always fall short when documenting. Those are the small things that can really get you in trouble.”
Documenting will not just give you a defense in case of an accident and investigation, but, as Tielmann says, it’s part of “keeping that mindset fresh.”
Whether it’s lifting a tree off a house or performing line clearance through a right of way, powerful electric currents create a dangerous hazard for crane operators, climbers and crews. Keeping them safe can save money and, more important, lives.
“A lot of people assume that the more money they spend on a piece of equipment, the safer they are,” Tielmann cautions. “Just like anything, if it’s misused, it’s going to fail. You can’t just assume it’s going to do what you think it’s going to do; you have to know.”
Cranes were designed to lift symmetrical objects up and put them down on construction sites, Tielmann says. They were not designed to cut and lower odd-shaped tree trunks and branches that can come off the tree and spin in the air, which can be a tough thing for the operator to visualize and a big potential hazard if there’s a dangling power line in the vicinity.
There are rules and regulations governing operations near power lines, and the practice Tielmann recommends is to wait for the utility to shut off the power. “We always recommend, if you are going to be doing a job, let the utility do its job,” he says. “Those lines are the property of the utility company, and you cannot touch private property. It’s up to them to make those conditions safe.
“A lot of the time, the homeowners, or whoever you’re working for, get anxious. They say, ‘Well, we just want to get it done; can you just do it for us?’ And that’s when operators get in trouble,” Tielmann continues. “They get hurt because they’re not patient enough to say, ‘Hey, we’ll come back in three weeks and do this after the lines are dropped or after we have an answer from the utility.’ Being a hero when you’re doing storm work can put you in a position where you won’t be coming home.”
Safety training is the first step and, obviously, an important one.
“During basic operator training, we want operators to first understand that electrical hazards could be present at nearly any job site, and then how to identify them during their job-site hazard survey,” says Phil Doud, manager for the Sentry Safety program at Altec Industries, Inc., a 35-year TCIA corporate member company based in Birmingham, Alabama. Sentry Safety runs general operator training for Altec cranes and crane-operator certification (through NCCCO) for Altec and other telescoping boom and articulating cranes. “We want them doing a job-site survey at every job site before setting up the crane. We also want them to have a basic understanding of how OSHA expects them to avoid electrical hazards, as well as the special qualifications required for working within minimum approach distances (MADs).
“Then they can plan to avoid the hazard and remain outside the required minimum approach distance,” says Doud. “For tree care, this would include guarding against potential movement of branches that could pass within minimum approach distance. They can be further trained to use the methods described by OSHA in 1926.1400 (a standard for cranes used in construction and demolition), as directed by their employer’s work rules, depending on the exact circumstances of their work.”
That said, working safely around power lines can be more difficult than it sounds, influenced by a number of variables and sometimes coming with deadly consequences. Experts in crane safety and training spoken with for this article make similar observations about the hazards of electricity, the safety precautions needed and the need for continued training. They also point out that, in the field, in the moment, other stressors can lead to poor decisions and results.
In the crane industry, they call it an electrical contact: an energization from a line or other source into the boom, the load line, the branch or anything else being lifted below the ball.
“Cranes are not insulated at all,” says Peter Nieves-Sosa, president of The Crane Man, Inc., an 11-year TCIA member company based in Chalfont, Pennsylvania, a crane-with-operator rental company that does 99% of its work in the tree care industry. He also runs a crane-safety climber school every April.
“There is no safety factor for electricity with cranes,” says Nieves-Sosa. “That’s it. Electricity is your worst enemy out there when you’re talking cranes, because it’s that thing that can kill you that you can’t actually see.”
“What happens, as a crane operator, is we tend to run the controls and we watch our load,” explains Keith Norton, training instructor for Cranes101, a 10-year TCIA corporate member company based in Bellingham, Massachusetts. “Operators forget about the boom, they forget about the load line. Then that’s typically what (the power line will) make contact with, either the boom or the load line, more often the load line.
“One of the accidents that happened just in the last few years involved a young fellow, I think 23 years old, who died in New York,” says Norton, referencing his comments from the perspective of a stick-boom operator, where his expertise lies. “The crane operator picked a piece. When he went to set it down, the ground worker walked over and touched the log, and it killed him right there because the load line made contact.”
Once a conductor makes contact, the danger could extend even to the ground crew – and the ground.
“If the boom becomes energized, the voltage is going to come down through the boom, through the chassis of the truck, out through the outriggers and then dissipate into the soil,” Norton says. “And we can’t see that. So the ground is now energized.
“Think of throwing a pebble into the water. That’s the analogy they use a lot for something known as step potential. You throw the pebble into the water, and you see the ripples coming out from it. Think of those ripples as different voltage ranges. The highest voltage is going to be at the center of that. Then each little ripple coming out is going to be a little less, a little less and a little less. So that’s the difference in the potential for our feet.
“If we step into two different zones, for the foot that’s in the highest voltage, the voltage will come up through that foot and leg into the core of our body and will go out the other. That can kill us. We could get shocked, or it could electrocute us.”
In the case of an elevated, dangling power line, depth perception adds to the danger.
“To estimate separation from that line in the air, you have nothing to judge space off of until you touch it,” Nieves-Sosa says. “Then you go, ‘Oh, well, there it is. Now I see where it’s at.’
“By OSHA rules, that’s why, when working in those close proximities, you have to have a designated spotter, somebody who has no other job than to stand there and watch the electric line and give the crane operator that direct signal of, ‘You’re getting within 10 feet,’ or whatever. The spotter has no other responsibilities than to watch anything coming near that line.”
The spotter could be considered the most important job in the crew, although, as Norton says, “I’ve always thought the most important thing is to work as a team. Everybody has to function as a team. If anybody notices anything, call it out.”
Adherence to safety rules is key to working safely, Nieves-Sosa says. One of the OSHA regulations governing power lines is often referred to as “the 10-foot rule,” but designates a 20-foot distance from unknown voltages. In most cases, the only people who know the voltage are the owners of the utilities.
“One, you have to be able to recognize what a power line is. Granted, we’re not electricians, but if it’s a line in the sky, just assume it’s energized,” cautions Nieves-Sosa. “Don’t assume it’s a phone line or a cable line. You have to assume it’s electric and, therefore, you have to maintain the safe distances. The only way you can know the voltage is by contacting the power company, whoever owns it, and then, obviously, you would have to document that.
“I teach my crews that I would rather walk away from a job any day than deal with one of these situations,” he says. “The hard part is showing up to a job that everybody is set up to do and being willing to say, ‘I’m not doing that. It’s just not safe.’
“We all have to be able to take that step back and say, ‘Listen, this isn’t right. I don’t want to kill any of you today. I don’t want to die myself today. So let’s just back down. Let’s do this the right way. Let’s contact the power company.’ It may take weeks to reschedule this job, but that’s the right thing to do to keep everybody safe.”
That can be a tough decision to make in some situations, such as after a storm, when there may not be just a need – perhaps from a limb breaking through someone’s roof – but a good day’s profits to be had, as multiple houses in a neighborhood may all be requesting service.
There also is often a tree veteran’s inclination to power through the situation, what Nieves-Sosa refers to as “the whole mentality of ‘No, it’s too complicated to do this the right way. Let’s just be really careful today, and we’ll get through it.’
“But it doesn’t always work that way. To be willing to turn down the dollar in the cause of safety is everybody’s biggest challenge of the day, I think.”
Working with trees and around electricity, commercial tree care companies are trying to control as many things as possible while working in two environments, trees and electricity, which are very unpredictable. To run a crane crew, it’s important to train operators to deal with the electrical hazard by using the spotter to avoid the power lines, to understand how heavy the load is and to keep it stabilized, says Erick Navarro Palacios, CTSP, an independent trainer based in Magalia, California.
“The power lines, yeah, we can say they’re a little bit unpredictable, because we don’t know what’s going through them, but we do know we shouldn’t get close,” says Palacios. “It’s not too unpredictable. You know if you touch it, you’re going to get hurt, right?
“But a lot of times it’s hard to find a crane operator who doesn’t come from the construction side of things. And yes, in construction it’s pretty basic, everything’s there, you know exactly what that steel beam weighs, 2,000 pounds – it’s marked, it’s stamped on there. You know exactly what you’re lifting. We don’t know how much that limb weighs until we cut it, and then it turns into a dynamic load. When you cut it, even as static, as calm, as stable as you might be, there’s going to be some dynamic movement in that pick that normally you don’t have in construction. And again, a lot of the people we have to hire right off the bat so we can get the crane going are the operators with crane experience. And they usually come from the construction industry, so they don’t have the tree background.”
But it works the other way as well.
“What we are doing a lot right now is training arborists to run the crane,” says Palacios. “These are experienced arborists who understand what the tree does. Their downfall is, they haven’t been running a crane for 20 years.
“But I think it’s a lot easier for me to teach a tree worker to run a crane, then the rest comes more easily for them. I’ve seen employees who come from the construction side. They run cranes, but it’s very hard for them to adapt to the tree industry. Because we do things a little bit differently. It’s a little bit of organized chaos for us here.”
Education is key
It isn’t just the operators who need training.
“Climbers do the EHAP, electrical hazard awareness program,” Nieves-Sosa says. “They definitely need to be trained as well. TCIA offers a whole bunch of courses. Every month, you can find a course somewhere near you for the EHAP training. That’s another training that has to be maintained. I believe it’s a multi-tiered training where CPR and aerial rescue are involved, and then the actual electrical-hazard-awareness part of the program. I know power companies across the country all help run these programs, because it’s in their best interests to have all of us trained properly.”
So, how does a tree care company owner protect their most valuable assets, their employees? The experts all stress the need for training, through courses such as those offered by TCIA, as well as for treating the utility as an ally and not something to be avoided.
“Everybody should be trained in electrical hazards and aware of the voltage,” Norton says in a sentiment echoed by all. “Standard EHAP, like TCIA’s EHAP courses. Take advantage of any of those safety courses.
“Work with your utility. I’ve stressed that over the years to people, to tree companies. A lot of them don’t want to call the utility. They don’t want them to know they’re going to be near the wires. Well, establish a good relationship with your local utility and find out what they can do for you.
“I’ve had utilities come in and take primary wires down so we could do trees – not just service wires, but primary wires, down,” Norton says. “Back when National Grid was Niagara Mohawk and had their own tree crews, one time we called them because the neutral was inside the wood. They went and looked at it, and the contact called me back and said, ‘Send two people, a chipper and a chip truck. We’re going to send a bucket and cutter.’
“There’s a lot they will do. The utilities do not want you dying in their wires.”