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Safety at work - High voltage

At 60 meters up in the air and in close proximity to 380,000 Volts, work safety and carefully planned procedures take highest priority.

Overhead power line

Christian Stolberg’s commute can be accurately described as an uphill struggle. Only after climbing 60 meters up a steel lattice pylon can his workday truly begin. After every step, he must reaffix his safety line. Only then can he proceed to the next.

Of course, the power line that he works on has been isolated. But there is no hiding from the fact that only ten meters away, another line has 380,000 Volts coursing and crackling through its filaments. At such voltages – the highest to be found in the German power grid – the humming can be heard easily, and Stolberg can feel the vibrations.

It should be self-evident that the overhead linesmen of Cteam Consulting & Engineering from Ummendorf in Baden-Württemberg pay especially close attention to their safety. The topic of safety is always present, and an important component of each briefing session for the 26-person team.

At briefings – both on site and at the Cteam depot in the town of Biblis – Chief Supervisor Ernst Lueger explains the upcoming assignments and their potential hazards. These hazards may include falling debris, damaged tools and live parts. It is imperative to obey all safety regulations regarding working at height, the boss inculcates his technicians. For the Croatian team members, a translation is provided.

Normally, this is all a matter of routine. Today, however, they are under observation by Andreas Geiger from DEKRA Organizational Reliability and his colleague Thomas Fischer. They are not just here to take part in the introductory discussion and briefing – they will shadow the team all day, watching how safety precautions are executed on site.

Following this, they are to provide a report evaluating the behavior and attitude toward safety, as well as cultural aspects on the work site.

Dizzying heights

Certified safety culture

The background for today’s audit is the five-level Safety Culture Ladder (SCL), a certifiable standard for a firm’s safety culture. TenneT, a grid operator, uses the SCL as a tool to improve its own safety awareness – as well as that of contractors such as Cteam – in the pursuit of achieving the highest SCL’s highest safety rating.

The company wants to get to level 4"

Cteam is based in the district of Biberach in the South of Germany, and has 455 employees, of whom 269 are occupied in overhead line construction. The two DEKRA safety experts support the company in optimizing its structures and progressing through the SCL rankings.

“TenneT is the driving force here. The company wants to get to level four – the second-best category. In order to achieve this, all contractors must achieve level three,” explains Benjamin Gick, Project Manager for DEKRA Assurance Services.

The line construction specialists are not the only contractors that must submit their safety structures for testing. It is a requirement for the entire industrial spectrum, from the canteen, through explosive ordinance disposal, to pest control. The consultants also observe the company’s work on wind turbines and cable-laying vessels.

“We aren’t here because we are intent on uncovering something,” says DEKRA’s Andreas Geiger.

Instead, he sees his duty as finding out how the topic of safety is pursued within the company, and how collaboration can develop this further.

In any weather

This is also the goal of today’s observations. Cteam has been tasked with upgrading two 380-kilovolt circuits – spanning six kilometers – with new transmission lines. The gigantic insulators need to be replaced as well. Bright blue plastic components will replace the brown ceramic insulators.

The masts upon which the linesmen are working are between 50 and 70 meters tall – the equivalent of two church spires stacked on top of each other. The workers carry heavy tools as well as their own safety equipment. This alone weighs approximately 30 kilograms.

The fact that today is ice cold even at ground level does not appear to faze the team. They are wrapped up in several layers of clothing, windproof jackets and protective eyewear. The climbers – many from Austria – are in high spirits and each of them is keen to profess how enjoyable their job is. They work in almost all weathers – only ice and strong winds keep them down at ground level.

Safety check

Safety check: All work materials are inspected by the linesmen both before and after usage. Photo: Ulrich Schepp/Wmp-Wizard-Media

Considerate working environment

The first round of the SCL experts’ inspections takes them through the Cteam depot, in an industrial area near the small town of Biblis. Damaged tools are locked away in cases, ensuring that they cannot be used any longer. The heavy cable drums on the premises are also secured against rolling away.

Does everyone understand every command?

Thomas Fischer is happy to see this. But what is the situation with the Croatian employees – do they really understand every command? The Cteam employees are unanimous that this does not present an issue. Several are proficient in German, and pass on any information to their compatriots. The company also offers German language training. Additionally, Chief Supervisor Ernst Lueger has a simple yet effective solution: “If I’m not quite sure that an employee has fully understood the instructions, I head out and inspect what they are doing.”

Michael Schürle is the Integrated Management System Manager at Cteam, and thereby responsible for quality, work safety and health protection, as well as environmental concerns. He notes the fact that induction training for new employees has been extended from three days to a full week.

Maintaining awareness of each other’s safety is a matter of course for the workers, and also an important duty of any supervisor. The team receives a reward upon completing six months of work accident-free. All are united in stating that the greatest potential for harm does not come from the heights or high voltages – that is all tightly controlled.

To illustrate this, ascending a mast unsecured is grounds for immediate termination at Cteam. Rather, it is the small things that lead to accidents – tripping over a tool or sustaining a hand injury by not wearing a glove when handling a cable roll.

Moments later, it becomes abundantly clear which details can prove decisive. The linesman on mast 14 has lowered a load of materials down, including a cargo sling. The colleague on the ground carefully checks everything and discovers that the sling is too worn to remain in service. In order to ensure it will not be used further, he renders it unusable with a knife.

Everything by the book, one should think. However, the safety experts are not too happy with the knife usage. Is there no other option? Bolt cutters or scissors perhaps? All present reflect on this and develop suggestions.

Practical approach

While exact standards are sometimes desired, another point makes it clear that not everything can be solved by precise definition. Safety Consultant Geiger asks: “Are there regulations that state at what wind speed work must cease?”

No, there aren’t. The ‘folk upstairs’ explain why this doesn’t make sense in their opinion: A sustained wind speed is not an obstacle, per se. However, gusts of the same strength may render any work impossible.

The evaluation of Andreas Geiger and Thomas Fischer at the debrief is a positive one: “The people here know what they are doing, they feel safe and there is no nervous or erratic behavior on site.” Private discussions have also revealed that even the newer members of the overhead line construction team feel well-looked after. Employees that have previously worked for other firms also note that the topic of safety plays a much greater role in Cteam’s operations.

Those responsible at Cteam naturally enjoy hearing this feedback, and also have a positive assessment. After all, the observation of real, on-site situations is much more valuable than studying theoretical standards and regulations. The practical approach has turned out to be the best in this case.

Safer Together

The Safety Culture Ladder (SCL) is a five stage, certifiable standard for work safety awareness in enterprise.

Stage 1 – Pathological: “What I don’t know can’t hurt me”

Stage 2 – Reactive: Change efforts occur spontaneously and quickly

Stage 3 – Calculating: Safety regulations are regarded as important

Stage 4 – Proactive: Safety has a high priority and is continuously improved

Stage 5 – Progressive: Safety is fully integrated into all business ­processes


* Images by Ulrich Schepp/Wmp-Wizard-Media

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