It’s a busy time in our industry. We have challenges associated with normal operations and maintenance of the grid. We’re also faced with new and increasing work involving distributed generation, vehicle charging infrastructure and major transmission projects.
Both existing and emerging work require access to the respective work areas, and with this comes the associated hazards of off-road access work. As an industry, we talk about the electrical hazards of our work all the time, and we should. But we don’t spend a lot of time talking about access work hazards before and after the electrical work is done. This article is intended to get you thinking more about right-of-way access and matting.
Before any work begins, a strong work plan should be developed, starting with an assessment of the right-of-way. Ask some simple questions during the assessment, such as the following:
- Will matting be required? If so, what type (e.g., heavy timber, wood laminate, composite)?
- What equipment will be required to handle the mats? Will there be a risk of encroaching on the minimum approach distance?
- What load capacity is required for the matted surfaces, particularly if the mats will bridge streams or irregular terrain?
- Will there be railroad crossings? Will there be underground facilities such as gas transmission, petroleum pipelines or oil static cables?
- Are there water crossings or bodies of water that we will need to deal with? If so, is there a risk of rising water levels that could cause the mats to float?
- Are there wetlands or other environmental considerations?
- Have we identified how we will access the right-of-way? Has emergency responder access been considered?
- Have we resolved any concerns with landowners?
- What permits will we need?
Once the assessment is complete, the next step is to dedicate time to establishing controls for the hazards that have been identified. The remainder of this article provides a number of potential hazards and the controls you will want to consider for them.
Mats are heavy, and it takes heavy equipment – such as log trucks, forwarders, track rigs, diggers and payloaders with forks – to move them. This can create traffic issues at the work site. Controls to consider include travel routes for different equipment, the use of spotters, work planning to reduce conflict between electrical and access crews, and communication between crews on the site.
When planning travel routes on a matted surface, we must consider the fact that our routes only offer one-way traffic flow. Planners must consider egress options for oncoming vehicles. To allow for egress, we must strategically place work pads to the side of the matting so that operators have a place to go when multiple pieces of equipment are using the mats. As we place the matting and work pads, we also must consider the requirements of any environmental permits and place the matting within the permit requirements.
However, placing the work pads at specific locations on the matting route is not enough; for traffic to flow well, a conversation must take place during the job briefing that covers who has priority during travel and how crews will communicate. No one wants to find themselves nose to nose with another piece of equipment, needing to back up a long distance on matting. Deciding who has the right of way is easy – it is often the heavier piece of equipment. To make it clear to the team, discuss how you are making this determination. Talk about what’s heavier, a tandem-axle dump truck loaded with gravel or a fully loaded forwarder. Investing in this conversation will help you develop a good plan.
Guy wires are a frequently overlooked hazard. They are a normal part of every right-of-way and need specific consideration because guy wires often are a leading cause of events for matting contractors. If a site’s work plan does not view guy wires as a hazard, striking the wires with equipment and booms could become a challenge. To lower the risk of these events, follow the hierarchy of controls and first see if you can remove the hazard. Ask if the guy wire can be moved, and don’t assume the answer is no. Asking requires minimal effort, and the answer may be yes. If you are not able to move the guy wires, make them more visible instead. Normal guy guards are not enough; crews see guys every day and can become blind to them. So, change the visual indicators and hang flagging on the guys like you are trying to sell them on a used car lot. Finally, don’t assume guy wires are a recognized hazard. Talk about them as part of your daily job briefing, including where they’re located and how they need to be managed.
Spotters will likely need to be used at some point, whether it’s during the work of placing mats, moving equipment or operating equipment near guy guards. Using spotters adds complexity to the job, putting people on the ground near heavy equipment that has blind spots.
For one of your safety meetings, have spotters sit in the operator’s seat to help them fully understand the equipment’s blind spots. When a spotter is used, the crew needs to spend time discussing equipment movement, blind spots and communication methods. This conversation should include an agreement on safe working distances, especially the safe distance the spotter needs between their body and the equipment.
It is also recommended that spotters have two-way radios for communication with the equipment operator. However, even when radios are used, the spotter and the equipment operator need to agree – before work begins – on the hand signals they will use to communicate. Radios are a great tool, but they don’t always work when you need them.
The daily safety briefing should include some basic information about the spotters as well as any other people who may walk on the matting when equipment is operating. Where vehicles and equipment are traveling on mats, people should not be on those same mats because the matting can shift or move, potentially injuring a person on foot. If you are the one operating the equipment and you lose sight of the spotter or another pedestrian, stop operation immediately.
Matting by Design
Matting by design provides additional support for the work area. It is intended to support the weight of the equipment, bridge gaps and protect the ground underneath it. Mats can be slippery, uneven, and have gaps and pockets that present hazards. Some matting is so high off the ground that it becomes a fall hazard. If matting is not level, vehicles and equipment could slide off it and roll over.
Hazard reduction starts with building a level matting base. A qualified person should design installations for steep inclines and other high-risk locations. When installing matting, follow the design, inspect the matting before installation to make sure it is in good shape, use runner mats when needed to make the work surface level, and inspect for gaps after installation.
Once working from the mats, plan for and conduct maintenance. In colder climates, there will be snow and ice during winter. All areas will have rain. Snow, ice and rain make mats slippery, but the use of sand or salt may not be an option due to environmental considerations. To reduce slippery conditions, provide stone dust on the job site. Mats can also serve as elevated walking/working surfaces and expose people to fall hazards, so guardrails may need to be installed. For those same areas, devise a plan for equipment movement that limits exposure to the fall area.
Last but certainly not least, include the matting in your daily inspection. Condition the crew to look for, identify and report hazards in the mats as part of their normal work.
Mat stockpiles have their own hazards. As mats are loaded and unloaded, there are drop zones that need to be identified and managed. Stockpiles are often located in visible areas near public roadways and must be considered in terms of worker and public safety. These storage locations should be flagged or fenced, and they should have some type of barricading and signage that tells the general public to stay out and who to contact with questions. Mats must be properly piled, placed and inspected. When inspecting the matting stockpile, make sure that mats are not leaning, piles have not shifted or become unstable, and rotten mats are identified and removed from service.
Communication is a common theme in this article. Great communication starts long before the job begins, and it must be reinforced at the job site during the job briefing. Remember, a great briefing is like well-built matting – it is the foundation for a successful job.
During the job briefing, in addition to the discussion topics already covered in this article, include a conversation about the importance of asking questions if anyone is unsure about their role or the work to be done. Verify that the entire team knows your commitment to being able to stop the work if anyone is unsure. Often, multiple teams are working on matted jobs, so don’t assume that everyone knows the plan. Use the job briefing to ask questions, clarify expectations and support the idea of a questioning attitude.
About the Authors: Nathan Boutwell, M.Eng., CSP, SMS, CIT, CUSP, is the business unit manager for Northeast Live Line LLC.
Nick Powers is the vice president of strategic growth for BluRoc.
Bill Hinrichs, CUSP, is the director of environmental health and safety for Northline Utilities LLC.