Heat Hazards: Protecting Utility Workers and Their Equipment Amid Rising Temperatures

Guidelines for recognizing heat-related hazards, training employees and creating a Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Program (HIIPPs).

By Nikki Johnson, Contributor

When transformers are exposed to excessive heat, it can lead to overloading, voltage instability and potentially catastrophic failures. Image courtesy of Duralabel.

Global temperatures continue to climb, and the protection of our electrical infrastructure and the workers who maintain it has become a top priority. Discover how cooling technologies and safety measures keep utility workers and critical equipment safe in extreme heat.

Last year, the month of July reached record-breaking temperatures, making it the hottest month on the planet since 1880, according to data collected from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

As extreme weather becomes the new normal, the safety of workers will continue to rise too. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began drafting a new heat standard for workplaces last year, which in reality may take years to be ironed out and implemented.

Based on the OSHA report1, the consensus was that instead of creating a heat standard, general guidelines for recognizing heat-related hazards, training employees, and creating Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Programs (HIIPPs) should be created instead.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) has reported:

  • 33,890 work-related heat injuries and illnesses from 2011–2020
  • 3,389 per year average
  • 999 deaths among U.S. workers from 1992–2021, an average of 33 per year

The heat can affect any industry where workers experience prolonged exposure to its elements, which includes firefighters, farmers, construction workers, miners, boiler room workers, and factory workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Electrical utility workers in particular experience instances of severe environmental heat stress resulting in elevated levels of heat strain when performing daily tasks such as climbing utility poles and installing lines.

OSHA states under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” Employers are legally obligated to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that either the employer or industry recognizes as hazardous and or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees. This includes heat-related hazards that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm.

WHAT DOES EXCESSIVE HEAT DO TO EQUIPMENT?

Technology is available to reduce heat stress, and also protect the electrical equipment utility workers work hard to maintain. Image courtesy of Graphic Products.

Extreme heat affects workers, but it also affects electrical equipment too. The warmer the environment, the harder the equipment needs to work to keep up with the elements and the greater risk of blackouts and brownouts. Extreme heat reduces the output of power plants, causing equipment to overheat, and make power lines sag as the metal in them expands — bringing them into contact with trees and potentially causing outages.

  • Blackouts come without warning, last for indeterminate periods, and are typically caused by catastrophic equipment failure or severe weather.
  • Brownouts are defined as a partial, temporary reduction in system voltage or total system capacity.

This has become increasingly true for the U.S power grid system. Unfortunately, the frequency in which these outages have occurred over the years has become alarming. According to Reuters, in the past several years, power systems have collapsed in hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves, and a deep freeze, causing prolonged outages.  It has become apparent that this old grid cannot sustain the current frequency of severe weather storms. The cost of repairs was $160 billion a year in 2022, a 9.1% increase from 2021 and an 11.5% increase from 2012.

Aside from the reoccurring costs in repairs, excessive heat can significantly impact electrical equipment in several ways:

  1. Transformer overloading: Transformers are critical components of the power grid and can experience reduced efficiency and increased losses when exposed to excessive heat. This can lead to overloading, voltage instability and potentially catastrophic failures.
  2. Conductor expansion: High temperatures can cause conductors to expand, leading to sagging power lines and increased risk of line-to-ground or line-to-line faults. This can result in power outages, equipment damage, and safety hazards.
  3. Substation equipment failure: Equipment within substations, such as circuit breakers, switches and relays, can be adversely affected by excessive heat. This may result in malfunctioning equipment, disrupted power flow, and system instability.
  4. Increased energy demand: During heat waves, energy demand typically increases as people use more air conditioning and cooling systems. This places additional stress on the power grid, potentially leading to overloading of transmission lines and substations.
  5. Heat-induced blackouts: In extreme cases, prolonged exposure to excessive heat can lead to heat-induced blackouts, where equipment failures and overloads cascade into widespread power outages affecting large regions, or even entire states.

The New York Times reported that during the Obama administration, they promoted energy efficiency to address climate change, and consumers used less electricity to save money, but that has changed in recent years as businesses build data centers large enough to power an entire city, or consumers shifted away from gas vehicles to electric vehicles.

With the increased demand for energy, it has become increasingly more difficult for the power grid system to keep up. Most of the system was built in the 1960s-70s and some sections are at least 25 years old. The system is divided into three major regions that are interconnected to local electricity grids designed to ensure minimal loss of service should an outage occur. Due to the grid’s interconnected nature, it can affect many people simultaneously should a blackout or brownout happen.

Last year, millions of people faced unprecedented heat waves across the country. During the high temperatures, cooling is a necessity to prevent overheating, which can lead to hospitalization or death. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2021:

  • A heat wave contributed to 159 deaths in the Pacific Northwest and led to rolling blackouts.
  • 9,300 Avista Utilities customers in Spokane, Wash. lost power in a city of 220,000 people.

There is not a whole lot anyone can do about the warmer temperatures. However, there is plenty to be done to protect workers from heat stress and the equipment they maintain that keeps the power on.

Many organizations are implementing cooling technologies that will help reduce deaths and injuries due to excessive heat and help prevent electrical equipment from overheating.

TECHNOLOGIES THAT PROTECT WORKERS AND UTILITY EQUIPMENT

To protect utility workers and their equipment amid the rising temperatures, various cooling technologies and safety measures need to be employed. Here is a list of known technologies that can not only reduce heat stress, but also protect the electrical equipment utility workers work hard to maintain:

  1. Air conditioning and ventilation systems:
    • Portable AC units provide spot cooling for workers in confined spaces or temporary shelters.
  • High-Volume Low Speed (HVLS) fans enhance airflow and reduce heat stress in large areas like substations.
  1. Heat exchangers are used in transformers and other electrical equipment to dissipate excess heat efficiently.
  2. Thermal management systems:
    • Phase Change Materials (PCMs) absorb and release heat to regulate temperature.
  • Liquid cooling systems circulate coolants around critical components to maintain optimal temperatures.
  1. Advanced insulation reduces heat absorption near equipment, helping to maintain lower operating temperatures.

SAFETY MEASURES THAT PROTECT WORKERS

  1. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):
    • Cooling vests with gel packs or PCM inserts keep the  body temperature down.
  • Hydration packs ensure workers have easy access to water. This prevents dehydration.
  • UV-resistant clothing protects against sunburn and reduces heat absorption.
  1. Work scheduling: Employers should schedule heavy tasks during the cooler parts of the day and provide shaded rest areas.
  2. Monitoring and Training:
    • Heat stress monitors are devices that track environmental conditions and workers’ physiological responses. These act as reminders to workers to take breaks and hydrate.
  • Training programs are designed to educate workers on how to recognize heat stress symptoms and proper hydration practices.
  1. Remote Monitoring and Automation:
    • Smart sensors monitor temperature and performance in real-time, ultimately reducing the need for manual inspections in extreme conditions.
  • Automated systems control and adjust cooling mechanisms remotely to ensure equipment stays within safe operating limits.

Technologies that protect workers and utility equipment have evolved over time, ensuring greater safety and efficiency in the workplace. As we move forward, it is important to consider what the future holds for industries that rely on natural gas for production.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR INDUSTRIES THAT RELY ON NATURAL GAS FOR PRODUCTION?

Data collected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) claimed the average electrical usage varies mostly by geographic location, but overall, it is 900 – 1,000 kWh per month or about 11,000 kWh per year.  In the EIA’s report, electricity generation from units that primarily consume natural gas in the U.S. Lower 48 states has increased for all hours of the day since 2021, according to data reported on Form EIA-930.

The EIA said the increase in electricity generation from natural gas was most likely due to coal retirements, increases in natural gas-fired electricity generating capacity, and low natural gas prices in 2023.

Increased electricity generation from natural gas can have several implications for industries reliant on electricity for production:

  1. Cost stability: Natural gas can offer a more stable pricing structure compared to other energy sources like coal or oil. This stability can benefit industries providing more predictable energy costs, which is crucial for budgeting and planning.
  2. Environmental impact: While natural gas is cleaner than coal in terms of carbon emissions, it still contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Industries may face pressure to reduce their carbon footprint, potentially leading to investments in renewable energy sources or carbon capture technologies.
  3. Energy security: Reliance on natural gas for electricity generation can raise concerns about energy security, especially if there is a disruption in supply chains or geopolitical tensions affecting gas imports. Industries may explore diversifying their energy sources to mitigate these types of risks.
  4. Technological innovations: The shift towards natural gas could spur innovation in energy efficiency solutions. Industries may invest in research and development to improve energy efficiency and explore alternative energy sources to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Overall, while increased electricity generation from natural gas may offer some short-term benefits such as cost stability, industries will need to adapt to evolving energy policies, environmental concerns, and technological advancement to ensure long-term sustainability. ESW

References

1 https://www.osha.gov/heat/sbrefa

Nikki Johnson is a senior content specialist at Graphic Products based in Portland, Oregon. Graphic Products is a global leader in workplace labeling and signage by providing solutions and savings for customers backed by lifetime support and service. Read more about visual communications and safety at www.duralabel.com/resources.

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