- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Law officers, and fire and emergency medical personnel risk their lives to save others every day.
But there’s plenty of danger on the job elsewhere. The people who fix Southern Maryland’s roadways, turn the electricity back on and deal with waste materials also face their share of peril.
At the local State Highway Administration shops, crews are mostly doing maintenance work, said Bob Rager, community liaison for SHA District Five, which can be more dangerous than it sounds. District 5 encompasses Charles, Calvert, St. Mary’s and Anne Arundel counties.
“Most of what they do is going to involve fairly quick, on and off the road, but anytime you’re on the road it’s dangerous, whether it’s picking up signs or trash or doing some pothole work,” Rager said.
Phillip Burch, road foreman of the SHA Leonardtown maintenance shop, said crews must follow certain requirements prior to beginning repairs on a road. Several signs and cones must be set up certain distances from where the road work is scheduled to take place, he said.
“That really is the scariest part, is initially getting out in front of traffic that’s running down on you [when you] set your cones,” the 32-year-old Mechanicsville resident said.
Once the signs and cones are set up and the traffic is more controlled, “it’s not too bad” because the flow of traffic slows, he said, but some people still have a tendency to speed.
Occasionally, when drivers on the road see crews starting to set up for construction, they “floor it,” similar to some drivers’ speeding up to make it through a yellow light, Burch said. Other times, drivers will speed up to the construction area and then slam on their brakes, which can cause the brakes to lock and car to be “out of control,” he said.
“You’ve got seconds to decide whether to run this way or run that way or stay still,” Burch said. “It’s very scary and confusing.”
Once, when a crew was completing paving asphalt, Burch said, a speeding car drove too close to the work zone and hit the tool one of the crew members was holding.
“A car drove by and hit [the tool], and knocked it right out of his hands,” he said. “[The tool] spun back around and hit him in the legs, and he fell down almost into traffic.”
“I don’t think people realize, when you’re out there working, just how fast they’re going or how close they are, or how scary it really is,” Burch said. “None of it’s really scary or unsafe until you throw in speeding motorists or motorists that aren’t paying attention.”
The danger is real. On Nov. 7, Charles County Circuit Judge Amy Bragunier sentenced Yuri Marie Francois Vielot Jr., 27, of Fort Washington to serve time at the Charles County jail for the 2010 deaths of Marlon Lorenzo and Erick Alvarado, two Maryland State Highway Administration contractors. The two were killed Oct. 21 that year after Vielot fell asleep at the wheel of his 2004 Volkswagen SUV, leading him to cross the median at the intersection of routes 228 and 229 in Waldorf and run into the men.
Dirty and dangerous
One job site in which most people might not think traffic hazards exist is at a landfill. The environment of a landfill, Charles County Department of Public Works environmental resources chief Dennis Fleming said, can be dangerous to both workers and citizens.
“A landfill is a pretty hazardous, dynamic area of operation, in that we have a number of people arriving at the landfill who aren’t used to driving off-road, and the dump area is ever-changing,” he said. “It’s comingling of heavy-duty trucks with citizens and pickup trucks. It’s a dangerous environment.”
Fleming, 55, of Mechanicsville said with no line markings or arrows to direct traffic, there is “all the potential in the world” for the heavy-duty trucks and private vehicles to collide. There also is the potential for the work trucks or other equipment to back over someone standing in the landfill, he said.
“We operate very large equipment — big bulldozers, huge trash compactors. You have citizens comingling with heavy construction equipment,” he said.
Dealing with the elements
When Ron Rennick, Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative safety testing and inspection manager, was a lineman several years ago, he had just finished repairing an electrical pole and line from inside a bucket truck when lightning struck the line about a mile away from where he was.
“I could see it. It was like a little red fireball zinging right down the wire, heading right toward where I was,” Rennick said. “I was backed away from it, but that’s one of our fears — lightning striking [the line] while we’re working on it.”
The weather is the “biggest hazard” SMECO linemen face in their line of work, Rennick said.
“The elements can be very difficult when we have high-wind situations, ice storms, things such as that,” he said. “We have limbs, trees falling while we’re out there trying to work.”
Rennick, 55, of Port Republic said SMECO’s safe work practice policy doesn’t allow linemen to do work on poles and power lines when winds are above 30 mph. In the midst of a bad storm, he said, employees will complete a storm assessment so when the weather breaks, employees will know “exactly what we need and where to go.”
Rennick said during Superstorm Sandy last year, linemen only were assessing or working in emergency situations, such as if a wire was down. Crews made sure the power to the line was shut off, he said.
“We couldn’t go out and start putting it all back together until the wind eased up,” he said.
Like SMECO linemen, SHA crews find their jobs become increasingly difficult as the weather worsens.
“The worse the weather is, the more we work,” Burch said.
If a tree falls in the roadway during a severe storm, SHA crews will help remove the tree, all the while wondering if they are safe. If a tree falls in the road and takes a power line with it, Burch said workers wait until SMECO cuts power to the line before removing the tree. Burch said during those times, he constantly wonders if lightning is going to strike or if another tree will fall.
“We’ll be cutting one, and you can hear the trees, and you can see them whipping, and you’ll hear them crashing behind you,” Burch said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten pinned in, where trees fell around us and knocked down [power] lines.”
Needles, dust inhalation and chemicals are just some of the additional hazards solid waste workers in a landfill are exposed to, Fleming said. At a landfill, there is a potential for chemical fires from similar chemical coming into contact with each other, he said, and methane also can cause explosions. Exposure to hazardous waste or pathogens also is a cause for concern, Fleming said.
“When you’re dealing with waste, you’re dealing with the unknown,” he said.
Solid waste workers constantly are trained on safety practices and safe operation of equipment, Fleming said. Inside the facility, there is a “landfill spotter,” he said, who is responsible for controlling the landfill operations and keeping a safe distance between vehicles and equipment. Employees also are trained on identifying hazardous waste, he said.
All solid waste employees are well-trained in personal protective equipment, Fleming said, and wear a safety vest, a hard hat, safety glasses and puncture-resistant boots. The boots are necessary, he said, because workers walk across the trash, and “you never know what might puncture your foot.”
The safety practices must be working because although “every day is a dangerous situation,” Fleming said the Charles County landfill has not had an incident since 1994.
Rager said nighttime operations for SHA crews especially are dangerous because “you just never know what’s going to happen in the middle of the night.” He said drivers at night often are tired or “coming home from bars or parties,” which poses a danger and requires extra safety measures.
“It’s a danger to the workers and the motorists, as well,” he said. “The patching and paving operations are pretty mobile, so cones or drums are put down to establish work zones … but they’re not going to stop any vehicles. If somebody’s not paying attention and/or is tired, and they come through cones, it’s very dangerous.”
To protect crew members, road workers are given a bright yellow reflective jacket and matching pants, which Burch said can be seen at night from 1,100 feet away with vehicle lights. Workers are allowed to wear just the jacket during daytime repairs if they prefer but always must wear the matching pants when working at night.
Additionally, flares and cones will be placed on the roadway, and workers carrying flashlights and light plants will illuminate the work zone, he said.
On a typical day of climbing work, SMECO spokesman Tom Dennison said, linemen climb poles holding distribution lines that are about 50 feet tall. He said it is important to note that the linemen can also climb to the top of the new transmission poles being installed in Calvert as part of the corporation’s reliability project, which average 145 feet in height, with the tallest at 160 feet. To maintain and repair those poles and lines, linemen must climb them using safety gear issued by SMECO, Dennison said.
Rennick said to climb the poles, linemen strap climbing gaffs to their boots, which stick into the pole. Then, the linemen strap themselves in harnesses and use a leather strap, which they wrap around the pole, to pull themselves upward. The safety gear also allows the workers to stay in place once they reach the desired height.
“They need all of those things to get up there and stay where [they] want to work, other than a bucket truck,” Rennick said. “This is the old-fashioned way of doing it.”
Dennison said scaling utility poles to repair and maintain the wires is used mostly when poles are inaccessible from a bucket truck.
“Often, they have to go attach a wire to a pole in the woods,” he said. “You can’t get a truck to it, so they go down through the woods, climb up the pole, take the wire with them and do it manually.”
Rennick said all linemen not only get the proper training, but also are given the proper personal protective equipment to use. That includes hard hats, safety glasses, boots, rubber gloves and harnesses. “This is a dangerous job for a layperson that isn’t trained,” he said. “It’s hazardous, but it would be dangerous to someone that wasn’t trained.”
Safety training is one of the first lessons given to linemen as part of the apprentice program, which lasts for four years, Rennick said. He said during the first two years of their training, apprentices are not allowed to touch energized circuits.
Travis Sparks, 24, of Mechanicsville is in his third year in SMECO’s apprenticeship program. The first thing Sparks said he learned was how to do the job safely, including first aid, climbing and rescue.
Twice a year, linemen are required to do what Rennick called a “hurt-man rescue.” A 200-pound mannequin is dangled from a 40-foot-high pole, and linemen must climb it and rescue the mannequin within four minutes. Annually, a bucket truck rescue is practiced. Rennick said crews practice lowering the bucket and rescuing a person if they were to become hurt and fall inside the bucket while it was aloft.
“As much as we work, we train — and that’s everything from hands-on to books to in the field,” Sparks said. “It’s a lot of training throughout the years. … I don’t think there’s a situation that just about any one of these guys couldn’t handle.”