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A tough day for test dummy

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“Tuff Kelly” lived up to his name last Wednesday. He was electrocuted while servicing overhead power lines as his coworkers watched. Then he was shocked again. And again. And again. That’s a tough day at work, even for a 180-pound practice dummy.

The final round of the state’s top utility crews “shocked” and “rescued” Kelly during the annual pole-top rescue exercise that was held at the Governor’s Industrial Safety and Health Conference at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center last week. The competition and conference started in 1973 as a way to teach people about proper rescue techniques.

The top four teams of linemen from Washington’s electrical utility industry competed for honors in rescuing a “victim” from a 40-foot utility pole in a mock industrial accident that had been temporarily erected at Tacoma’s Tollefson Plaza. Judges poured over data and observational notes during the competition to determine the winner based on time, technique, CPR effectiveness, situational assessment and communication.

“I think that competing is much better than any other training,” said Tacoma Power utility crewmember Ivan Welch after competing alongside coworker Joe Tabisz.

Training in classrooms and reading manuals keeps knowledge and skills sharp just in case an accident happens, but actually facing a live competition pulls all that information into real-world practice. Doing something wrong, even a little misstep, could turn an otherwise routine job into an accident and then a catastrophe if rescuers don’t train properly.

“The last thing we want to do is become a second victim,” Tabisz said. “In the case of an accident, it’s going to be our guys who are going to get us down. We know each other’s families, and we want to make sure everyone can come home to their families.”

Tabisz and Welch placed fourth in the competition’s final round, with a team from Spokane-based Avista Utilities taking the top slot ahead of teams from Snohomish County Public Utility District and Spokane’s Inland Power and Light. But regardless of the scores, participants and viewers were reminded of the fact that an average of 30 utility linemen around the nation don’t return to their families because of accidents each year.

“We are getting better in terms of safety, but things happen,” said pole-top rescue judge and Avista lineman Bill Shaffer, noting weather, aging electrical lines and simple human error can cause 13,000 volts of electricity to spark through a utility worker, causing injury or death.

But they aren’t the only ones at risk. Statewide, about 50 people die from work-place accidents each year. Recent workplace deaths locally include a sawmill worker who died at Manke Lumber Co.’s mill on Tacoma’s tideflats last December and a United Building Services window washer who fell 10 stories to his death in September. The millworker died when his clothing snagged on a conveyor as he was clearing a jammed piece of lumber from the line. The window washer died after he apparently fell while climbing over the roof’s edge of the Davita Building.

The state later fined Manke $87,120 for 25 serious and 11 general safety violations following a state investigation according to Labor and Industry reports. The investigation into the death of the window washer is ongoing.

“Like any other large city, Tacoma has its share of workplace incidents,” Labor and Industries spokesperson Tim Church said.

The capstone of the competition and the workplace safety conference include the awarding of Governor's Lifesaving Awards to 32 men and women who saved the lives of coworker who suffered emergency situations that ranged from a teacher tackling a high school student holding a loaded handgun, to a logging inspector providing aid to snow-stranded motorists on a remote logging road, to a graphic design worker administering the Heimlich maneuver to a coworker who was choking.

L&I workplace safety snapshot

  • Most commonly reported workplace injury: One of every six compensable claims is a sprain or strain of the back from overexertion or repetitive motion.
  • Most commonly reported worker fatality causes; Transportation incident, struck by or caught in objects, falls from elevation, assaults and violent acts.
  • Most frequently cited workplace hazards: Lack of, or inadequate, workplace safety and health programs; chemical hazard communication; fall from elevation and electrical safety.
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