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Duke Energy Corp., an American energy powerhouse providing electricity and gas to 4.5 million households nationwide, has spent the past three decades implementing changes to the way its line technicians work.
The Charlotte, N.C.-based employer says it wants to keep its workers on the job, a majority of whom are aging yet irreplaceable.
Since the early 1990s, Duke Energy has introduced new equipment to make it easier for workers to haul 40 to 60 pounds of apparatus, has provided battery- and hydraulic-powered shears to cut thick wires, has enforced the use of new straps to keep workers in place while toiling away on tall electrical poles to avoid treacherous falls, and has invited workers to participate in a pre-shift, early morning stretching workout to help ready their muscles for labor and to avoid strains and sprains.
These are among the overhauls put in place since 1992 to help keep all workers safe and avoid injuries, and—as a lauded side effect—keep its cadre of older, more experienced and highly valued line technicians on the job, according to Duke Energy safety experts.
In recent years, the focus has been on aging workers, those experts say.
The average age of a Duke Energy line worker is 50 and, according to training manager Joel Lunsford, it takes eight years to adequately train one of them from the day they are hired.
“We value the more experienced workers,” he said. “They have the knowledge base, they have the maturity, and we need them to mentor the younger people.”
“The things you learn over a long career are invaluable,” said Dee Putnam, a senior health and safety specialist who started working on the line at Duke Energy when he was 19 years old. The 61-year-old added: “The older workers watch and teach; they are like fathers to those with less experience.”
Duke Energy employs 18,400 workers in its offices and in the field nationwide. Of them, 4,500 work in a division known as “power delivery”—the teams of line technicians known to perform some of the most dangerous, physically demanding jobs. The teams, disbursed in regions across the country, are responsible for building and maintaining electrical distribution systems, handling everything from high-tension, high-voltage wires to equipment that can weigh up to 60 pounds.
Lifting and climbing is part of the job, as is extensive technical knowledge.
The younger workers “are young and strong and can do a lot, but it's the older line workers who keep them safe on the job,” said Mr. Putnam.
It's in that particular segment of the business where Duke Energy has zeroed in on safety by introducing new machines and mechanisms for doing business. It's the newest mainstay, however, that's getting the most attention: a 15-minute stretching routine for workers starting their shifts.
The stretching program is tied to research that suggests stretching can help eliminate or reduce musculoskeletal injuries. A presentation on the program by Duke Energy reveals that it started the program in 2008 after finding that 35% of its injuries stemmed from soft-tissue damage.
Mr. Putnam, who helped introduce the program, said he and other safety experts anticipated a hard sell at first.
“We heard (workers) saying they didn't want to see leotards and yoga mats,” he said. “We thought there was going to be a lot of resistance, but once it started people started saying they wished we started doing this 20 years ago.”
The 15-minute routine was developed by an outside exercise firm and has been altered since 2008 to add variety. Most of the routine is focused on moves that are work-related, warming up muscles line workers use throughout their workday, said James Gartland, principal health and safety specialist.
It's now in place throughout Duke's East Coast and Midwest offices and will continue to be-come a part of the company's culture of safety, according to Mr. Putnam.
Overall, that culture now includes the use of ergonomics in the workplace and tools that call for less muscle strength. For example, Duke has moved away from using manual wire-cutting tools that are similar to hedge clippers.
For the most part, “we switched to battery-powered and hydraulics, which calls for less brute force,” said Mr. Gartland.
In 1992, Duke targeted the fall risk for workers who had to climb to the top of electrical poles. Such devices as positioning belts and “buck squeezes” that now keep workers from falling are well on their way to becoming an industry standard, said Mr. Putnam, adding that what was once a dangerous task is now much safer. “We have people who say they don't mind climbing up there now,” he added. “Gradually, we've been working to be a zero-injury workplace.”
David Miller, director of field support for Duke Energy, said the “journey of protecting the worker” is always a work in progress. “We're never where we want to be...(but) we're relentless in our goal of achieving zero injuries.”
This story is from the April 9, 2012, issue of the weekly print edition of Business Insurance, a special theme issue featuring an in-depth look at how employers can manage the risks associated with an aging workforce.
Copies of this issue, which includes a data poster that breaks down the impact of older employers on workers compensation, are available for $100 by contacting our Single Copy Sales department at 888-446-1422.
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The health and safety of the rapidly growing number of older U.S. workers demand employer attention to reduce injury-related losses, experts say.