When Lori Spence has some free time at work, she has an interesting way of filling it: Googling what's new in the world of extreme parasites and toxic plants.

"Every year it seems like there's a new species to worry about," she says. "This year it's the East Asian tick, which has the potential to transmit a virus that can be fatal."

Spence concerns herself with such things as part of her role as a safety trainer at Manassas-based Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC). She adds each new peril to an ever-growing list of dangers that NOVEC's outside crews face, from poisonous spiders and snakes to vicious dogs and territorial birds; falling limbs and poison ivy, oak, and sumac; sudden storms, dehydration, and sunburn; distracted drivers and irate homeowners. And that's all on top of the multiple dangers associated with building and maintaining high-voltage power lines.

"It's a daunting challenge to make sure your folks have the tools, techniques, and strategies they need to avoid all the pitfalls of outside work," says NRECA Safety Director Bud Branham. "When you look at the totality of the threats to line crews, it truly requires constant focus and attention to bring them home safely every day."

'My Dog Won't Bite'

Safety professionals like Spence are adapting their training regimens to keep up with emerging hazards.

When giant hogweed, a towering plant (up to 14 feet) with toxic sap that can cause severe burns and even blindness, was found in nearby Fredericksburg, Virginia, this summer, Spence held a special training class on the topic.

"A local 19-year-old landscaper came into contact with hogweed and received third-degree burns," says Spence, noting that the plant has been found in nine other states. "I told people when you see it, report it. Don't pick it. It's so dangerous, the government doesn't even want you to deal with it."

Third-party experts are finding markets for helping outdoor crews manage risks.

Mitzi Robinson runs Bulli Ray, which offers occupational training to avoid dog bites.

She says a changing preference among homeowners for bigger, larger, stronger dogs has led utilities to beef up awareness among line crews.

"Since the 1990s, there's been an evolution from hunting dogs as companions to more aggressive dogs for personal protection," Robinson says.

She tells workers, among other things, to always maintain "situational awareness."

"How many steps are you from something that you can grab? A dog will bite the first thing he sees. If you have nothing, it will be you," she says. "And don't trust the customer if he says, 'Don't worry. My dog won't bite.' Statistics show the likelihood of getting bitten if the homeowner is present is 87 percent higher."

Good Progress

While it seems like danger is lurking behind every power pole, Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange (Federated) says claim numbers for most incidents and accidents between 2013 and 2017 were well within the norm:

Poison oak: 250 claims totaling $42,000

Dog bites: 350 claims totaling $370,000

Ticks and insect bites: 451 claims totaling $160,000

"We have about 25,000 to 30,000 field employees visiting members on a daily basis, and we have experienced just 350 dog bites over a five-year period," says Corey Parr, vice president of safety and loss prevention at Federated. "Statewides and co-ops are doing a good job educating and preparing employees on how to eliminate and reduce the exposures."

Operationally, crews are working safer as well. Technology has helped, says Rob Land, vice president of risk management and training at the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives in Jefferson City.

"Equipment has changed the way we operate," he says. "For instance, linemen used to use manual compression tools and brace-and-bit drills. Today, battery-powered drills and compression and impact tools have helped prevent strains and other injuries to employees."

NOVEC's Spence says one of her key training tactics is to teach accident prevention as a life skill.

"I want our workers to know this doesn't just apply to them while at work. It also pertains to their families at home," she says. "If you make it personal to their own lives, they'll get the message."