Safe practices in maintaining the electrical grid can’t be overvalued. The truth of power transmission is that it’s inherently risky work. We ensure the functionality of enormous systems, with high voltages traversing significant distances, including ancillary services that make this possible.

For utilities, much of the day-to-day work involving line maintenance can fall to an ecosystem of trusted outside contractors. The overall strategy of a vegetation management program, for instance, may originate in-house, but execution falls to a contractor whom the utility trusts to perform safely. It’s in everyone’s best interest that safety best practices be followed by all a utility’s contractors, and it’s the responsibility of the utility for making sure this happens. But how can you ensure that teams across a service area are working safely?

Too often, taking a closer look at safety practices and procedures is prompted by an accidental injury or even death. Beyond the incomprehensible human cost, the utility and the contractor are suddenly under significant pressure: Occupational Safety and Health Administration penalties, higher insurance rates, worker’s compensation claims and the severing of contracts.

Third-party safety audits ensure the best possible practices and precautions are being followed on a regular, formal basis.

A comprehensive safety audit provides an objective assessment of a crew or contractor’s safety practices, predominantly in accordance with OSHA 29CFR 1910.269 and the ANSI Z133 Safety Standard. Staying up to date on all relevant standards for new rules and regulations is critical. The Z133 standard, for instance, contains revisions that may tie back to a specific incident in the field.

Consider this example: A small tree care company undergoes rapid growth after contracting with a bigger utility. Lacking a dedicated training department, some crew foremen are responsible for safety training. What happens if those foremen are only knowledgeable about outdated versions?

Next, a safety audit determines if a crew is following those standards in the field. The audit will take note of the following:

  • If a written pre-job briefing has been provided;
  • That the proper personal protective equipment is being worn;
  • Properly functioning equipment (and much more)

One of the most important benefits of a safety audit isn’t always top of mind: a total documentation of safety procedures. If it isn’t documented, that training doesn’t count for much.

From the utility’s perspective, documentation is critical. Ultimately, it’s the utility that is granting permission for a given contractor to perform service on their rights-of-way, and being able to reference documentation that certifies the contractor is up to the utility’s standards is an important part of the utility/ contractor relationship.

A safety audit accounts for certifying documentation — proof that crews have been through the appropriate safety training. It can include something as simple as a written quiz that must be taken by individuals after watching a safety video. No matter the case, it must be documented. A safety audit provides this documentation. If there’s room for improvement, the audit provides clear identification of the specific need. And if a crew is performing its duties with an exceptional focus on safety, the audit will reflect that just the same, allowing for greater confidence. In the event of an incident, safety audit documentation also provides assurance that your organization had done everything in its power to promote safety. If OSHA comes knocking, such documentation is critical to potentially avoiding significant fines.

As far as choosing an audit partner, make sure that your auditor is well-versed in relevant OSHA and ANSI standards. Participation in industry standards committees, and length of industry experience is also a plus, are other good indicators. And be sure that your auditor provides you with the proper documentation as part of a service agreement.

Overall, a safety audit will benefit utility companies and contractors. Doing everything possible to ensure crews are safely upholding the utility’s commitment to its customers is enormously important — lives depend on it.