Electric utility linemen often discover safer, better work methods while out in the field. In some cases, they may even be inspired to invent new tools and technology to help protect their fellow linemen and improve their productivity.
To share these ideas with their field workforce, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) created a Grassroots Team three years ago. Six linemen meet one hour each week to pinpoint challenges and identify and implement solutions. The team votes for which projects to work on and then solicits feedback from the field workforce.
A coach and Guidance Team also work with the team to approve projects to move forward. While the Guidance Team can approve, disapprove or tweak an idea, the Grassroots Team is responsible for planning and implementing the projects.
Over the years, the Grassroots Team has tackled a variety of different issues linemen face in the field. For example, the Grassroots Team has invented a new tool labeling system, a new crossarm cover and a hot stick testing schedule. The team then helped to roll out these solutions to the field workforce to save time, improve working conditions and reduce the risk for injuries.
Through the creativity and collaboration from the Grassroots Team, SDG&E was able to tackle an age-old problem: lost tools. By talking to the linemen in the field, the team discovered that linemen were working weekend shifts, and when they came back to the yard on Monday morning, their tools were missing. As a result, they didn’t have the tools they needed to get their work done.
To solve this problem, SDG&E implemented a bin and tool labeling system. SDG&E purchased label makers for each of the crews, and the linemen were asked to label each bin with a particular number. They also assigned each tool a special truck and bin number. That way, the linemen could put the tools away in the correct bin and on the proper truck, even if they were not familiar with the vehicle.
As a result, the linemen could start off their workweek with a full bin of tools. Through a better organization system on the work trucks, the linemen also didn’t have to spend valuable work time hunting for lost presses, drills or other important tools.
The Grassroots Team often focuses on the issues that linemen face day in and day out. Case in point: As linemen were replacing more and more wood poles with steel poles in high fire risk areas, they were covering the energized conductors with rubber blankets. As they were setting new poles, moving wire or changing out the crossarms, the linemen taped the rubber blankets around the pole and the crossarms. In the process, the rubber blankets got scratched, nicked and damaged, and had to be put out of service.
After losing thousands of dollars to replace damaged rubber blankets, SDG&E tried to find a more cost-effective and efficient solution. The Grassroots Team then conducted research to try to find existing products that could serve as a crossarm cover for a steel pole. After coming up empty-handed, the team decided to invent a new product.
The Protective Electrical Testing Lab, an internal lab that tests and purchases rubber goods, hot sticks and other personal protective equipment for SDG&E linemen, then mocked up the first design with cardboard, Gorilla Glue and tape. After trying it out on a steel pole at the training yard, SDG&E then sent it to an East Coast manufacturer to develop a prototype.
Over the next year, SDG&E linemen then tested out nine different versions of the steel crossarm cover. In turn, the manufacturer made several different modifications. For example, the original design was too tight, so the vendor made the cover larger in size, capable of fitting different down guys, able to cover bolts and separated into two parts so it was easier to install in the field.
The final version of the device covers the entire pole, crossarm and tangent arm for a dead-end from any desirable direction. While the cover fits around the pole and crossarm, linemen can use rubber blankets or a line hose to cover up exposed wire or jumpers. The coverup is dielectrically tested to 30 kV, but the SDG&E linemen only work around 12 kV, so it offers more than enough protection.
To install the plastic crossarm cover, a lineman can use a shotgun or hot stick on the pole or by hand from a bucket truck. The crossarm cover weighs about 22 lb with the front weighing about 12 lb and the back end weighing 10 lb. The cover fits right over the crossarm, and half of it goes over the front, and the other half lays on top of it on the back. The crossarm supports the cover and keeps it in position. Two clips go through the eyelets so even in high winds, the cover can’t blow off. Instead, the cover interlocks and clips on top. Once the cover is in place, the steel won’t touch the overhead lines.
SDG&E is now working on getting a patent for the product, which will be used by the utility’s backcountry crews, who work in fire-prone areas. It can not only be used on steel poles, but also on wood or concrete poles as well. Linemen can use the product for an added level of protection when untying wire in the primary or changing out a crossarm. SDG&E has different sized crossarms on its system, and the cover is designed to fit both dead-ends and tangent crossarms.
The utility introduced the crossarm cover to the field at a safety meeting about two months ago, and so far, it has received a positive response from the field workforce. The linemen quickly learned how the cover worked and how to install it out in the field. Also, as a result of their hard work on the invention, the Grassroots Team won the 2013 Innovation Award for the Crossarm Cover for a Steel Pole.
Testing Personal Protective Equipment
In addition to inventing the crossarm cover, the Grassroots Team also focused on improving the speed and convenience of personal protective equipment testing. In the past, the linemen waited for a rainy day to change out their hot sticks. What often happened, however, was that the linemen left the sticks in their tool bin or continued to use hot sticks that were not in good condition. Many crews also would show up at the lab at the same time, which would create an unnecessarily long wait time.
To solve this issue, the Grassroots Team created a list and schedule for each crew to change out their hot sticks. Once a year, each crew prepares an inventory sheet, drops off the old hot sticks and then picks up the new hot sticks. With this method, it only takes about 15 minutes to change out the hot sticks, compared to the two hours that it used to take for this process.
Another way that SDG&E was able to improve the testing of its personal protective equipment was by developing a personal glove inflator in the Protective Electrical Testing Lab. This portable device inflates Class 2 gloves all the way to the fingertips, which allows linemen to test the gloves for air or water leaks.
While other devices are out on the market, SDG&E’s inflator is small and easy to use. With this product, the linemen can check their gloves, reduce the number of failures and eliminate the risk for fatalities due to faulty rubber goods.
As of now, the product is not yet commercially available to other utilities, but SDG&E has already equipped all of its line trucks with the device.
By working together to come up with creative solutions to common problems, SDG&E’s Grassroots Team has helped to change the culture in the field, garner management support and make a positive difference in the lives and careers of the linemen.
Danny Rodriguez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a working foreman electrician for San Diego Gas & Electric SDG&E. He has been with the company for more than 40 years and leads the Protective Equipment Test Laboratory for SDG&E.
Tom Harrison (email@example.com) is a lineman for San Diego Gas & Electric. He has been with the company for eight years and is responsible for maintaining and working on overhead and underground lines and handling new installations.
San Diego Gas & Electric | www.sdge.com