Linework has always been a physically taxing job, particularly as the years of strain mount on backs, shoulders, arms, and legs. A few years back,
Blue Ridge Energy, an electric co-op based in Lenoir, North Carolina, decided the physical toll of that work needed to be addressed.
“We were seeing a lot of soft tissue injuries with our linemen, mainly our linemen that had been in the industry for 20 years plus,” says Robert Kent, the co-op’s director of operations. “We started looking at different ways to help prevent that, not just in our seasoned linemen, but also with our new linemen just starting out. We didn’t want them to end up in the same place.
The result was a focus on ergonomics, the science of reducing injury by improving strength and flexibility and, critically, by finding ways to do jobs in less physically taxing ways.
“We started looking at things like stretching exercises in the morning,” Kent says. “And then we started looking at the different tools we purchase.”
The right tools and equipment can be an important part of ergonomics, helping employees avoid soft tissue and repetitive stress injuries, which can afflict both field crews and office personnel, notes Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety programs.
“The ergonomic design of tools and office equipment is becoming a more critical feature that safety and health people look at,” he says.
Government statistics indicate the concern is warranted. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has long listed line work as a hazardous occupation, not only because of the risk of electrocution, falls, or other serious accidents, but because of the chance of skeletal, muscular, or soft-tissue injuries to ligaments and tendons.
One-third of on-the-job injuries are ergonomic injuries, according to OSHA, including carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, rotator cuff, and other shoulder, elbow, and hand injuries.
A 2016 study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) found that 3% of lineworkers will suffer an ergonomic injury every year. The severity of those injuries varies, but they cost co-ops in lost time and money. In 2018, for example, the average U.S. price tag for arthroscopic shoulder surgery was nearly $26,000, according to Newchoicehealth.com, which monitors medical costs.
Blue Ridge Energy is one of several co-ops that has turned to technology—battery-operated field tools, more favorable desk setups—as part of an effort to keep co-op employees healthy and productive.
Connexus Energy in Ramsey, Minnesota, has combined attention to physical fitness with an investment in tools that can reduce stress and strain on employees.
“If I were to describe our ergonomics program for our line crews, I would call it a pre-injury program,” says Chuck Jensen, Connexus Energy’s environmental health and safety manager.
“We recognize how much time it takes to train and develop a really good lineman, and we want to keep those guys as long as they want to work,” Jensen says. “We want them to have a good, healthy, productive career and then, when they retire, be able to do all the things they want to do. We want them to leave in the shape to enjoy their retirement. One of the ways we can do that, as the world of tools and equipment progresses, is we can put stuff in their hands that is easier to use, isn’t as difficult on the body.”
That approach has other benefits.
“Frankly, you’re pursuing a parallel goal,” he says. “Typically what we find is a tool that’s easier and safer to use is also more productive.”
The value of good ergonomics extends to office staff. Desk surfaces that can be raised and lowered, “so people can vary their position during the day and don’t have to just sit or slouch,” along with ergonomically designed chairs, are helping to protect employees from the repetitive motion and back and neck injuries that can come with long hours at a keyboard and monitor, Branham says.
But the toughest physical challenges are faced by field crews, who labor under conditions they can’t always control.
“They don’t get to pick their work sites,” Jensen says. “They don’t get to pick how deep they have to dig the hole, what they have to deal with when they’re up on a pole in order to keep the power on.”
Branham says the biggest ergonomic advances in field equipment have come from replacing manual tools.
“Battery-operated tools have given cooperatives huge opportunities to reduce stress on hands and arms and shoulders,” he says. “They’ve made big inroads into the utility industry. They can be expensive, but at the same time, they offset that by making work more productive and less physically stressful.”
Manufacturers like Milwaukee Tool have recognized the value of ergonomics and have turned to sophisticated technology to measure the impact tools can have on the body. The company uses electromyography, in which sensors placed on the skin measure the electrical impulses in muscles, providing a record of the energy required for different actions.
Raffi Elchemmas, Milwaukee Tool’s national manager for health and safety, says the wireless sensors allow the company to test tools in ways that were impossible until recently.
“Before, you’d have to be in a hospital setting,” he says. “Now, we’ll have a professional user do their task in a real-life environment, and we’ll measure which muscles are engaged and how they’re engaged.”
Such high-tech research has led to significant ergonomic improvements in tools, Elchemmas says. The company has also invested in research to reduce vibration and noise levels, both of which can increase fatigue and create a greater chance of error or injury.
Greenlee is another tool manufacturer emphasizing ergonomics. Its Ergolab has worked with users to improve tool grip, balance, and alignment. Manufacturers are also working closely with co-ops and other electric utilities.
“We talk with Milwaukee Tool three or four times a year,” says Connexus Energy’s Jensen. “They’ll come in and ask us about tools and protective equipment. We’re trying to develop a partnership with them to work with them on developing better tools.”
Battery-powered tools are more expensive, but Blue Ridge Energy’s Kent described the cost as “a long-term investment in our linemen’s health and careers.” His co-op has replaced manual crimpers and cutters, which they felt were contributing to shoulder and rotator cuff injuries, with powered equipment.
“Our linemen have received it really well,” he says.
The new tools not only mean less wear and tear on muscles and joints, Kent adds, they also contribute to safety.
“A lot of time you had to have two hands to do the manual process,” he says. “But now, once you get it set, you can almost do it with one hand, so you’re steadier and safer.”
‘What it’s all about’
Evidence of a growing awareness of the importance of ergonomics at cooperatives is emerging, says Corey Parr, vice president for safety and loss prevention at
Federated Rural Insurance Exchange. The electric co-op insurer saw a 37% decrease in the number of repetitive injury claims from 2010–2014 to 2015–2019.
“We are seeing a decrease in severity as well,” Parr notes, which has helped the average-loss cost of claims fall slightly to $13,000.
Parr sees further gains ahead as manufacturers continue to improve the ergonomics of workstations and tools and co-ops encourage work practices that reduce physical strain and promote better health and conditioning.
The last factor is an important part of improving ergonomics, Jensen says. Connexus Energy works with an ergonomics expert whose grandfather was a lineman. He visits crews on-site to see how they are conducting their work and then develops a presentation that covers things crews are doing well and areas they could improve to reduce the risk of injury.
“Once a quarter, we will have him come in during one of our training sessions, and he will be available in the back of the room,” Jensen says. “So basically, after the session is done, if anybody’s got an ache or pain, he’s there.”
Lidia Dilley Jacobson, director of safety and loss control for
Minnesota Rural Electric Association, says about a dozen cooperatives in the state have hired Worklete, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in teaching body mechanics that reduce the chance of injury.
“The whole idea is to teach people to move better through habit,” she says. “They came out and filmed crews to see what they were doing and how they were working with tools and try to teach them to move properly.”
Tools and other equipment play a key role in improving ergonomics, but safety and operations experts point out that promoting smart work practices and good physical conditioning are also part of the big picture.
“The health and safety of our employees is really what it’s all about,” Kent says.