Monday, February 4, 2013

Safety 101: There Are No Stupid Questions

My long path to riding with line crews starts with a meeting to discuss the basics. The first thing Mark Mroczynski, director of Operations Support for Ohio Edison, tells me is that there are no stupid questions.

“If you don’t know, ask. If you’re not sure, ask. There’s no shame in not knowing. The shame is in failing to recognize that you don’t know and going ahead, anyway.”

I begin with several questions that may or may not actually be stupid:

Q. What clothing do I need to do this?

A. You need flame-resistant pants, shirts, jackets and special boots that won’t conduct electricity. Basically, everything over your underwear has to be flame resistant.

Q. Why are we assuming my socks and underwear are OK for this duty?

A. They just need to be made of all natural fibers, typically cotton or wool, and they can’t have any logos or synthetics in them. Everything over that has to be flame resistant.

He continues to explain what clothing I need. Pants and then shirts, sweatshirts and jackets I can layer. “You can go from cold in the morning to warm in the afternoon and back to cold when the sun goes down, so you’ll want to have enough layers that you’ll be comfortable all day.”

OK, another perhaps obvious question:

Q. Why do I need flame-resistant clothing? If I accidentally come in contact with high voltage, how are my clothes going to help me?

A. The flame-resistant clothing isn’t for voltage, it’s for arc flashes. Sometimes, electricity behaves in funny ways, and if you’re exposed to an arc flash, it can definitely burn you, and the last thing you want is for it to both burn you and catch your clothes on fire.

This is not a conversation I have ever had when receiving a new laptop computer in my office. In fact, to date, the most protective gear I’ve ever worn to any office is casual shoes to keep from slipping on ice in the parking lot.

My New Threads

Armed with his instructions, I head to the worker’s clothing store and proceed to spend every bit of the money they’ve set aside to keep me safe, and then some. The most remarkable thing is that the clothing doesn’t look like special safety gear – jeans, work shirts and the like are plain and serviceable, but wouldn’t draw attention in a public place. There goes my plan to show off my fancy fireproof pants in the next staff meeting.

Me: “Look, it says FR on the tag, for flame resistant!”

Co-worker: “Yeah, those are jeans, dude. Whatever.”

While trying on clothing, I have a moment when it hits me that this stuff is flame resistant. Flame-resistant clothing. I could be exposed to things that will burn me. I note quietly that this, too, is not in my official job description. I also note that thousands of my co-workers live with this reality every day, and although it is foreign and a bit scary to me at first, it’s business as usual for the folks who work on the wires.