The young subcontractor had aimed a bit too high with the cable anchor. It sailed past the lash cable, his intended target, and draped over the energized line above.

He’d been hired to help with a fiber-to-the-home build-out for the local electric cooperative and was working with a small crew of telecommunications technicians when the mishap occurred.

He knew the protocols for working near power lines but, in a moment of lost focus, went up in his truck’s bucket and attempted to retrieve the line by hand. The ensuing contact sent him to a nearby hospital burn center and left major scars, but he survived.

It’s a true story and one that illustrates an emerging challenge for electric cooperatives: maintaining safe practices as the push for rural broadband brings more telecom workers into co-op workspaces and closer to energized lines.

“We’re seeing an increase in incidents and near misses among our electric co-ops related to broadband operations,” says Corey Parr, vice president for safety and loss prevention at Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange (Federated). “In some cases, they’ve involved contractors doing telecommunications work for co-ops. In other cases, the incidents involve broadband developers who are working near co-op lines.”

It’s still common in rural areas to see two sets of utility poles on opposite sides of the same road: one for telecommunications, the other for electricity. But as more co-ops begin to tap their fiber networks to offer consumer broadband, the more communication infrastructure will begin to appear adjacent to the energized space on the top third of a typical utility pole.

According to NRECA data, more than 100 electric co-ops are engaged in broadband enterprises. Dozens of others are conducting feasibility studies.

“Anytime a cooperative ventures into another line of business, it must carefully consider risk and exposures that are unfamiliar and unanticipated,” Parr says.

Close spaces, different rules

While electric lineworkers and telecommunications technicians both work above ground on utility poles, they face different risks, require different types of training, and often use different tools and equipment to operate safely.

“Electric utility lineworkers routinely work in the supply space where energized facilities are located and must be trained to do so safely,” says Robert Harris, NRECA’s senior transmission and distribution engineer. “Telecommunications technicians work in the communications space, where energized facilities are generally prohibited by the National Electric Safety Code.”

Because these workers receive far less training related to energized work spaces than electric lineworkers, they’re required to stay away—typically at least 40 inches—from energized lines when working on pole-mounted infrastructure, Harris says.

But it’s not uncommon for crews to breach that buffer zone.

“In an effort to speed up the work, telecom workers sometimes get into trouble because they enter the supply space,” Harris says.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration code has a section on work in energized spaces titled Electric Power Generation, Transmission and Distribution. A separate telecommunications section of the code applies to broadband work.

That section requires, among other things, that “the employer ensure no employee approaches or takes any conductive object closer to exposed energized parts than the employer’s established minimum approach distance,” says Martha Duggan, NRECA’s senior director of regulatory issues. “The National Electrical Safety Code specifically requires clearance between communications and electricity facilities on poles.”

Parr says it’s important to not allow workers to lose sight of safe practices despite the sense of urgency to bring broadband to members who are clamoring for high-speed connectivity.

“A push to get the system built quickly can cause overemphasis on production that may lead to compromised safety,” he says. “If we bring people in with the perception of a quick build-out, the importance of production can get distorted, and that’s where the safety issues begin.”

That can cause problems from the ground up. In Alabama, Tombigbee Electric Cooperative has contracted much of the work for its broadband build-out, and the earliest issues were literally street level.

“Shortcuts were being made to state regulations for traffic control and roadwork notification rules,” CEO Steve Foshee says. “State officials knew it was a Tombigbee project, so they contacted us.”

The Hamilton-based co-op launched its fiber-to-the-home operation in April 2017 and has completed 600 miles of line serving about 5,000 customers. Plans are in place to add another 1,100 miles of fiber, boosting the potential customer base to 10,000.

Foshee had his safety and loss mitigation specialists worked closely with the general contractor, crews were supplied with more educational materials, and the general contractor’s safety director was given more training to improve worksite observation procedures.

“Within a few months, this problem was resolved. It was developing positive habits that they clearly did not have,” Foshee says. “It also required removing some contractors and bringing in others. This was the general contractor’s responsibility, but we wanted to hold the contractor accountable.”

Ownership of oversight

When Tipton, Missouri-based Co-Mo Electric Cooperative first considered commercial broadband, leaders looked at their pole stock, and costs were an immediate concern.

“It was determined that we would not place the fiber in the normal operating space for communications due to the amount of pole change-outs that would need to occur,” CEO Aaron Bradshaw says. “The spacing for our communication attachments put our fiber technicians in close proximity to the power space.”

When they began the build-out for their broadband subsidiary, Co-Mo Connect, they developed a vigorous training program designed to help improve safety for technicians, even though work near energized lines remains limited to lineworkers.

“Fiber-optic technicians are not qualified to handle any energized line, and that includes secondaries and neutral conductors,” Bradshaw adds. “If they have structure or electrical plant issues, they are mandated to clear the space and the structure and to contact an electrical representative to get the matter resolved.”

Besides qualifying fiber technicians for pole climbing and equipping them with rescue rope systems and handheld radios, Co-Mo has installed locator technology on its broadband bucket trucks.

“We select safety officers from each department, including our fiber operations, to attend safety meetings, reviewing incidents, analyzing issues, and ultimately providing solutions for a full spectrum of safety throughout Co-Mo’s operations,” Bradshaw says.

Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety programs, says training and appropriate oversight are essential regardless of whether work is contracted, done by existing staff, or undertaken by new employees hired specifically for broadband operations.

“Co-ops should consider spelling out specific safety concerns and alert contractors as to the safety risks associated with the work,” he says. “When a contractor is used, the co-op should appropriately manage the contract so they satisfy the requirements with respect to the quality and safety of the work performed.”

Emerging issues

With 10 to 15 percent of the nation’s electric distribution co-ops already committed to commercial broadband, and more on the way, safety and loss professionals are working to stay ahead of a range of issues that co-ops might never have faced before.

“We have people who are now climbing [telecommunications] towers,” says Jeffrey Harrelson, director of safety and loss control at Jo-Carroll Energy in Elizabeth, Illinois. “Those are skills that aren’t necessarily as endemic throughout the electricity industry as they are in the broadband industry.”

Jo-Carroll first entered the broadband business with deployment of a wireless network in 2009 and has since expanded its operations into a fiber build-out.

“We have people that have been sent to training and qualified to climb towers. We test yearly on their tower rescue skills, and we have fall-protection plans,” Harrelson says. “We went through a very extensive research project regarding what types of fall protection we should require.”

Jo-Carroll Energy broadband technicians work closely with lineworkers who handle connections in the energized zone, so they receive the same bucket truck rescue training, including conducting rescue operations close to energized lines.

Developing wireless safety protocols to address topics like commercial and residential rooftop work, tower safety, and radio frequency exposure for its broadband subsidiary took Jo-Carroll staff about five years. By that time, plans were in place to begin expanding into fiber, raising even more safety concerns.

Broadband technicians also need to be prepared for other hazards they can encounter at network operating centers or in working with fiber technology, Harrelson says.

“The light going down that glass fiber is generated by a laser,” he says. “So now we have to have laser eye protection.”

Branham says co-ops’ history of responding well to changes in safety practices will help them navigate new broadband protocols.

“The key is matching qualifications to the work to be performed and providing the proper oversight,” he says. “Our cooperative and statewide associations have always met safety challenges on the electrical side. I am very confident they will meet these same challenges with telecommunications technologies.”