This drone shot depicts property and utility line damage in Fort Myers, Florida, after Hurricane Ian.

A New View of Safety in Storm Restoration

June 12, 2023
When severe weather rolls in, vegetation management crews must prepare to respond in a safe manner.

Severe storms of all types — from wildfires to hurricanes and derechos to Nor’easters  —  are seemingly becoming more frequent, more intense and causing more damage to utility power systems than ever before. Despite the significant work being done by utilities and their contractors to harden systems and reduce the impact of weather-related outages, one destructive storm after another appears to have become a nearly year-round phenomenon. Storm is the new norm. With every storm, the first responders are called upon to work together to clear roads, remove trees, repair infrastructure and restore power for sometimes millions of customers. Crews face perilous conditions as they travel to job sites to perform their heroic work. Every move is in a dynamic, high-risk environment, so new tools for creating safety while performing restoration work are critical.

According to Deloitte’s 2022 Power and Utilities Industry Outlook, more than 3,100 extreme weather events occurred globally during the 2010s and more than 3,500 events happened between 2000 and 2009 — compared to just 711 in the 1970s. Deloitte’s 2022 Power and Utilities Industry Outlook reports that these unprecedented and unpredictable extreme weather events can badly disrupt the utility supply chain, challenging the grid’s reliability and resiliency and affecting utility business operations across the globe.

The problem seems to be getting worse. A U.S. interagency report projected that due to climate change, future extreme events causing power outages will be more frequent and last longer. Responding to the Deloitte survey, the majority of power and utility industry respondents have already noticed an impact. Fifty-one percent said extreme weather has affected the reliability of electricity delivery in their territory more than usual in the past year. More recent data backs up the claim. Florida Power & Light Company (FPL), America’s largest electric utility serving more than 12 million people, experienced damage impacting more than 2.1 million customers from Hurricane Ian in October 2022. A month later, Tropical Storm Nicole hit the east coast of Florida, affecting more than 480,000 customers. The economic impact to FPL’s system from just these two storms exceeded $1 billion.

Ratcheting Up Safety

When storms hit and the power goes out, oftentimes, line crews and vegetation management crews are the very first responders to move into an impacted area. Tree crews remove branches, fallen trees and other debris from roads, power lines and structures so police, fire and medical responders can move in, and utility workers can begin to restore essential power to homes and businesses.

“It’s often a chaotic situation filled with a great deal of uncertainty and hidden hazards,” says Leslie Kass, CEO of Lewis Tree Service. “What was once a pristine tree-lined street with solid utility infrastructure can become a scene of twisted branches, downed wires, broken poles and flooded roads in no time. While safety is always a top priority at Lewis, in these situations, the safety methods utilized by our restoration crews are of utmost importance.”

In supporting utilities in Florida impacted by Hurricane Ian in 2022, Lewis assembled an on-the-fly workforce of more than 1,200 craftworkers, safety specialists and field leaders from across the company’s 27 state service territory.

Three Phases of Restoration

Like many companies, Lewis leaders have a list of key performance indicators (KPIs) guiding their actions and tracked to measure success. When called upon to support their utility partners in response to an impending storm, the Lewis team quickly builds an ad hoc organization led by an operations vice president who uses a unique set of “Storm KPIs” for the duration of the event. The action often starts days before a predicted weather event is due to strike and doesn’t end “until the last crew safely returns home,” Kass says. Central to the Lewis KPIs are safety objectives including special attention to three distinct phases of action by every crew — mobilization, working and demobilization.

“We realize that keeping people safe throughout a storm response involves sometimes different areas of focus depending upon which phase of a storm our crews are in,” Kass says. “During the mobilization and demobilization phases, we emphasize things like the importance of 360-degree inspections of our vehicles, the roles of driver and co-driver, situational awareness of road conditions and careful navigating in staging areas, fueling stations and parking lots. We also recognize that workers have unique and different physical and emotional conditions when traveling into a storm, moving to or from a work site or after being released to head home. Our safety team does a great job of providing tailgates and information appropriate to each phase to help our crews stay sharp and prepared.”

Heightened safety actions in route to the staging areas and going home are critical, especially when crews are relocating to an impact zone different from their normal work location. Having and using tools and techniques to work safely during storm response can create safety issues in a situation where typical methods and procedures have their limits. Dennis Brown, president and COO of Lewis, has seen his share of storm scenes in his more than 30 years in the industry.

“Just because the power may be out in a neighborhood or business doesn’t mean lines on the ground aren’t energized,” Brown says. “And trees laying across lines and poles can shift with the wind or flooding, so approaching the work from the perspective of ‘safety first, safety always’ is imperative.”

Sometimes, the downed lines aren’t even accessible via roadways due to flooding, so crews need to wade into these areas hand-carrying their tools.

“In places like Florida and Louisiana, the risks in these situations can even include displaced alligators, snakes and sharks,” Brown says. “In addition to the tools needed to perform their work, special safety methods and techniques help to de-risk these difficult situations.”

Human Performance in Action

Beth Lay, director of resilience and reliability, has been equipping crews with special safety tools since she came to Lewis in 2018. Following a fatality that occurred the week before she started, Lay began laying the foundation for a culture change. This shifted the focus from safety audits, incident investigations and blame-and-punish responses to accidents. This would allow leaders to learn from work done right and respond to failures with curiosity. They could also pose questions designed to drive learning rather than inhibit it.

Deploying tools with names like, “Uncertainty Gauge,” “Press Pause,” “Peer Checks” and “After-Action Reviews (AARs)”, Lewis crews, field leaders and safety personnel work together to identify hidden risks and potential surprises and provide input to refine and improve processes and methods. They’re empowered to call in others, including peers, field leaders and utility partners, without retribution anytime their uncertainty exceeds their comfort level continuing the work at hand. Risk hides in the differences, so Lewis pairs travel crews with local leaders to help them navigate local conditions and customer specific needs. For example, if an out-of-town crew is bringing its convoy into an unfamiliar area, a local leader will meet them and guide them into the work location.

Nowhere are these tools more important than in the ambiguity and stress incumbent in weather disasters. Lewis crews employed these human performance tools in storm response efforts throughout 2022 — both formally and informally — resulting in more than 500,000 hrs of work without incident.

Learning for Storms and Blue-Sky Days

It’s not the known risks that lead to injuries and fatalities, but rather the situations with the greatest uncertainty, according to Todd Conklin, author, safety speaker and human and organizational performance consultant. The aftermath of severe weather creates circumstances of almost infinite uncertainty for the utility and tree workers called upon to restore power, and with it, calm and order.

The Safety-II/human performance principles and tools used by Lewis crews not only help to bring order to the chaos of storm work, but also apply equally to the blue-sky work. It often seems routine and ordinary, but can be highly variable and fraught with risks, surprises and uncertainties. Beyond elevating worker safety, these new safety tools of the trade also boost the productivity and performance of the crews.

To help utility customers ride out the next storm with less damage and safer restoration, it’s imperative to listen, learn and stay curious, Lay says. For example, they must discover what crews are concerned about, what challenges they are facing and where they need help.

“This is the way to make discoveries, find opportunities and improve performance,” she says. “That’s how to create a human-centered safety and human performance culture.”

Steven Powell ([email protected]) is the director of marketing and business development for Lewis Services.

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