Protecting and maintaining the electrical grid and water system requires Clark Public Utilities crews to work in all sorts of conditions, in often dangerous locations, throughout the county.
More often than not, the most hazardous conditions utility crews face happen along the side of the road.
Working with high-voltage electrical lines or a deep and usually muddy trench on water lines comes with many potential hazards and potentially life-threatening circumstances, and the dangers are compounded when vehicles move through the scene.
“Working in and around traffic is by far one of the most dangerous aspects of our job and, unfortunately, it’s where much of our work takes place,” said Clark Public Utilities Environmental and Safety Manager Tommy Jensen.
This time of year is one of the busier periods for utility crews, so you should expect to see many crews out on the side of the road. This time of year, they’re hard at work trimming trees away from power lines, making repairs that nasty winter weather often prevents, or restoring power after a storm or accident.
But no matter how cautious crews are, bad experiences with the traveling public is a far too common experience.
“During safety meetings crews regularly share their stories of close calls with traffic,” Jensen said. “We talk about what else we can do to protect ourselves and ways we can be more visible, but we really need drivers to also be more aware of our work zones.”
Drivers who find themselves coming up on a work zone should operate with the same caution and deference they give emergency zones. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also the law.
Last year, the Legislature expanded the state’s “Move Over Law” to give linemen and other utility workers the same protections as law enforcement, firefighters and emergency responders.
Next time you’re out on the road and you come up on a truck with flashing orange emergency lights or a large orange sign warning of “utility work ahead,” it’s time to move over and/or slow down.
Get into the next lane over, at a minimum of 200 feet before an emergency zone and don’t get back into your original lane until at least 200 feet after. If that isn’t an option, be sure you slow down before approaching and after passing the area where utility or emergency vehicles are stopped.
Matter of law
If you don’t follow the law, you may find yourself paying a very steep fine (they double in work zones), possibly receive a jail sentence and risk losing your license for a period of time.
The original Move Over Law was passed in 2007 in an attempt to protect emergency workers who have to stop along the highway. Unfortunately, the number of collisions involving emergency vehicles and workers has gone up since then, according to documents from the Washington State Patrol.
Then, in 2010, the law was amended to include emergency zones to protect tow truck drivers, emergency technicians and police who were being hit and even killed roadside at alarming rates.
Last year the state grew the definition of emergency zones to include the work zones linemen use to maintain or repair equipment along the road.
“We’re aware that drivers today are dealing with a lot of distractions — our phones are constantly going off, we may have a chatty passenger with us, modern cars come equipped with elaborate entertainment systems — but we really need their help out there,” Jensen said. “When it comes to crew safety, traffic is one of our biggest dangers, and unfortunately one that we have little control over.”
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.