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Planning to Be Safe

April 13, 2021

Maintaining safety, reliability, and resiliency are key mantras of the electric power industry. Now more than ever, safety is top of mind for many companies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 78 fatalities were attributed to electric power utilities in the U.S. in 2018. The idea of “Safety by Design” has been successful in many sectors, but is not yet broadly applied in the electric power industry. Also called “Prevention Through Design” or “Design for Safety,” the concept aims to eliminate hazards and reduce risk. We’ve seen some of this during the COVID-19 pandemic. Applying the concepts of Safety by Design offers the potential to significantly improve the “triple bottom line” by helping the industry’s people and processes, as well as the planet.

As the name implies, Safety by Design uses focused efforts to anticipate and eliminate hazards and risks in design, redesign, or retrofit projects; it seeks to identify changes and improvements early in a project. The concept is simple: systematically identify, eliminate, or mitigate as many hazards as possible. This could be at a new greenfield site or an existing location. Studies have shown that many injuries and fatalities can be attributed to design decisions or a lack of planning, often before work at the site begins. Safety by Design can help reduce these accidents, creating a safer work environment for employees and at times lowering costs by addressing risks early.

Safety by Design can be more effective in preventing accidents and injuries than relying solely on warning systems, work methods, and personal protective equipment (PPE). This includes examining the facilities, workers, work methods, operations, maintenance, equipment, tools, and materials. When elimination or substitution is not possible, safety enhancements may still be effective via mitigation methods to lessen the likelihood and impact of identified risks. Safety by Design improves the level of focus and increases collaboration to potentially eliminate certain risks and hazards.

A few utilities, including FirstEnergy, Southern Company, Powerlink Queensland, and ConEd, incorporate the Safety by Design tenets into their operations and corporate culture to achieve better results. Improvements can include the use of a new process or checklist, the modification of a switch in a substation, and the creation of a new robot to complete a dangerous task instead of a person. 

COVID-19 has provided many learning opportunities for facilities to update their operations to account for health hazards. The pandemic prompted many workplace design changes, such as one-way directional paths in offices, contactless operations, building renovations to improve airflow, enhanced sanitation, and maximum occupancy requirements. EPRI has conducted several webinars and released research on a number of items from disinfecting control rooms and operations at energy control centers to safety and operational guidance for ultraviolet germicidal irradiation.

Easy, commonsense practices that can be implemented at transmission and distribution work sites to alleviate risk include:

  • Study and review potential hazards around the worksite:
  • Examining overhead and underground hazards associated with cranes and other heavy equipment.
  • Exercising caution to avoid breaching minimum approach distances.
  • Ensuring adequate space to maneuver personnel and vehicles around the work site.

Make modifications in the initial design stage to help safeguard end users from arc flashes and electrocution, like adding devices such as:

  • Switchgear or other equipment that have been designed to contain and deflect arcs.
  • Devices made to allow for remote installation and removal of breakers, keeping the installer at a safe distance.

Consider the location of light bulbs, air filters, valves, gauges, and other common items that need recurring maintenance or inspections. Changes in these designs can avoid requiring employees to work at increased heights, in confined spaces, and avoid awkward ergonomic positions while performing duties.

There are several challenges to successfully adopting Safety by Design more universally across the industry. Changing corporate culture on any subject can be difficult, and support from the company’s leadership is usually a prerequisite for making these systemic changes to a project process and timeline. Getting the right internal stakeholder groups together is a critical element.  It’s important to educate leaders on the concepts, and encouraging their use on projects, to create a sustained, organizational cultural shift. Additional challenges to the adoption of Safety by Design concepts may include the erroneous perception of significant extra costs and time delays, or even the fear of legal liability.

EPRI’s research and development on Safety by Design benefits industry and society, and is explored in the recent Quick Insights: The Untapped Potential of “Safety by Design” for Electricity Transmission and Distribution. This area requires continued education across the electric power industry—including training and development of tools and resources—to support decision making and help ensure successful adoption. While it cannot be achieved with a simple “one and done” training session or a “one-size-fits-all” approach, any organization of any size can do it. This goal requires increased understanding, training, and cultural change via a long-term effort, and EPRI is already working to improve industry results for the benefit of society.  

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