Frequent Heat Waves Result in Increasingly Dangerous Conditions for Electrical Linemen

Citizens in the Northwestern United States suffered near unlivable conditions in their homes during this last summer because of June and July’s high temperatures. Combined with a widespread lack of air conditioning, temperatures reached a deadly threshold. Not only that, but the high demand for power during the massive heat dome in June resulted in blackouts for thousands of citizens in both Oregon and Washington as power grids struggled to keep up with demand.

During these extreme heat events, some of the nation’s most important people are out at work repairing power lines, restoring power, and performing regular maintenance.

Utility workers, specifically electrical linemen, are most active during extreme weather events and after natural disasters because those are the times when power grids are likely to fail. Some of their typical day to day responsibilities include:

  • The installation, maintenance, and repair of power lines
  • Identifying when voltage regulators, transformers, and switches are defective
  • Climbing poles and transmission towers, or using truck-mounted buckets
  • Operating power equipment

Unfortunately, as global temperatures continue to rise, heat related power outages will become more commonplace. That directly correlates with the need for more power restoration efforts made by our linemen teams, which means putting them in increasingly dangerous conditions.

The Science Behind Heatwave Induced Power Outages

Heat waves inadvertently cause an increase in electricity usage as citizens hunker down to try and stay cool in their homes. However, the sudden increase in energy consumption creates a nasty negative feedback loop that may likely play a part in further worsening living conditions as the nation’s infrastructure is pushed to its limits by climate change driven weather extremes.

The wires that make up our power lines have a limited capacity in regard to both electricity and heat. During extreme heatwaves power lines sag as the metal conductor within the line expands. This increases the risk of short circuits. When those short circuits do occur and cause power outages, it puts more strain on other power lines heating the wires even further, essentially causing the same problem. To add to this negative feedback loop, increased electricity consumption and excessive heat reduces the wire’s reactive power which causes a voltage drop. Electricity moves much slower because of this.

Working in Extreme Heat

Linemen are at an exceptionally high risk of developing heat stroke, heat exhaustion, or suffer from dehydration when they are out restoring power. All of which can turn deadly if not properly taken care of. Learn to recognize the symptoms of these health conditions.

  • Dehydration can happen easily in hot conditions if a person forgets to drink water regularly. The CDC recommends about eight ounces of water every 15-20 minutes when working in hot weather. Make sure to watch for the following symptoms:
    • Less frequent urination
    • Urine is dark-colored
    • Fatigue, dizziness, confusion
    • Headache
    • Extreme thirst

If any of the following symptoms appear take a break and consume fluids such as plain water or liquids infused with electrolytes.

  • Heat exhaustion is a condition that occurs when the body can’t cool itself down. The following symptoms will be present in someone suffering from heat exhaustion:
    • Heavy sweating
    • Cold, clammy, and pale skin
    • A fast but weak pulse and rapid shallow breaths
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Dizziness, feeling weak and tired, or having a headache
    • Muscle cramps
    • Fainting

If this happens to an individual make sure to have them take a break to cool down whether that be in a shaded area, in an air-conditioned space, or applying a wet towel to their head, neck, or shoulders. Drink water or a sports drink that contains electrolytes in small sips and avoid drinking caffeinated drinks or alcohol. If the above symptoms persist after an hour or the victim is vomiting seek medical help by either calling 911 or going to the ER.

  • Heat stroke is a serious health condition that can ultimately lead to death if not promptly recognized and treated. If the following symptoms appear take action quickly:
    • A lack of sweating, redness, and hot, dry or damp skin
    • 103°F Body temperature
    • A fast and strong pulse
    • Headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion
    • Fainting

Immediately call 911 as heat stroke is a serious medical emergency. Once that has been done, move the victim to a cooler area and work on lowering their temperature via damp towels or a room temperature bath. Do not give this person water as they will likely only be able to be given fluids though an IV.

You can find this information in our Heat Stress infographic here!

Know the Risks: High Heat Index and Stifling PPE

There are two factors that contribute to the likelihood of extreme heat related illnesses in electrical linemen: the heat index and the required personal protective equipment.

The NOAA’s heat index is an excellent tool to reference when facing extreme heat advisories as it takes into account the humidity. High humidity is dangerous when it’s already hot as it prevents our bodies from cooling themselves down with sweat since the air is already saturated with water. For example, if the forecast for the day is 90°F but the relative humidity is at 80%, then the body thinks it’s 113°F. Here you can see how dangerous it could be in 100°F+ weather with 40% or more humidity.

On the other hand, in low humidity environments high heat works to dehydrate workers even faster as their sweat evaporates faster. Regardless, the rule of thumb in both of these conditions is to always stay hydrated, take breaks when needed, and find shade to escape the heat.

As for PPE, wearing all that gear is not the same as staying cool with shorts and T-shirts. Linemen must wear the following to stay safe from electrical hazards.

  • Safety glasses
  • Rubber sleeves
  • Fire resistant clothing
  • Climbers
  • Hard hat
  • Rubber gloves
  • Climbing belt
  • Steel toed boots

Rubber sleeves, gloves, heavy boots, and full body coverage is not ideal for staying cool. While they are fully protected from electrical hazards, they now have to worry about maintaining a safe body temperature. Thankfully there are options for breathable fire-resistant clothing, but that is only a minor improvement.

If you need help calculating the risks of developing heat stress, check out our nifty heat stress calculator here.

Department of Labor Announces Measures to Protect Workers in Extreme Heat

In late September, the US department of Labor announced new measures they, and OSHA, will be taking to protect workers from extreme heat. This new ruling applies to both indoor and outdoor environments to allow for maximum coverage in terms of keeping employees safe from dangerous heat related conditions.

OSHA has been in the process of implementing enforcement measures, developing a national emphasis program for heat related inspections, and is releasing a standard specifically for heat hazards. The organization has noted that interventions and inspections can and will occur when the heat index is at or above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

These measures are long overdue, but hopefully they will provide further guidance on keeping workers safe in our continually changing environment. In the end, it’s important to remember to stay safe during these extreme heat waves

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