I was in the third year of my electrical apprenticeship working construction in Calgary Alberta. My Journeyman and I had been working on a distribution run that would reroute power away from an area that was scheduled for demolition. Due to the fact that the changeover required a two-hour major outage and could not be scheduled for day shift; we were talked into working the night shift. My three years of experience leading up to this night were the only years of experience I had working in construction, or any other job that carried serious safety implications. Construction in Alberta seemed to have a hierarchy. I was the apprentice; responsible for doing what I was told, helping out with whatever I could and taking over for brief stints when my journeyman told me too. The Journeyman was responsible for all the work we were doing and responsible for teaching the apprentice all he could. Then there was the Foreman who was ultimately responsible for both of us.
When the time came that night to lock out the 400 amp breaker feeding the cable we were about to cut, strip and splice onto our new conductors; the Foreman was taken into the electrical vault where he confirmed the lockout and placed his lock on the device in our absence. Eventually he returned and gave us the thumbs up to go ahead with our work. This practice of working under someone else’s lock is in complete contradiction to safety regulations but at the time, it was done quite often; as a peon apprentice there was no way I would be allowed in the electrical vault. We carried out the job and while placing the final wraps of insulating tape over the bare splice, our Foreman came by to check up on us.
“Wow, looks like you guys are making good time!”
“Yeah, we should be no more than another 10 minutes. Maybe we’ll get out of here a bit early tonight?” My Journeyman half joked. Sometimes we were allowed to leave a little early after these rare night shifts that went so well; it was a little reward for inconveniencing our schedules.
“Maybe we will guys. I’ll be back in bit.”
The Foreman took off and we finished up what we were doing in exactly 10 minutes. Then the cleanup started. As we were putting away tools and picking up bits and pieces of scrap wires laying on the ground we heard a distinct sound echo through the walls from the electrical vault. That sound was the 400 amp breaker being thrown back into service energizing the very conductors we were just working on. This is the exact reason why you lock something out for yourself. The last time the Foreman had seen us, we were still in direct contact with the splice. What if we ran into some unforeseen problem that held us up? What if we realized we had made a mistake and began redoing our work? If one of these scenarios had taken place, we likely would have been seriously injured if not killed on the spot.
I was lucky to make it through these early years of my career without serious incident but thousands of others are not so fortunate. Young workers are far more likely to be injured on the job for numerous reasons. First of all, due to their lack of experience, they just don’t know any better. Secondly, they are usually extremely eager to show that they are strong and capable of hard work, which can sometimes place them in undue risk. Finally, they often don’t fully understand their right to refuse unsafe work.
If only there was a system to teach these young workers how to stay safe on the job. Oh, but wait; there is!
A few years after my aforementioned near miss incident I began working under unions. In each of these jobs I felt I had some old guy keeping an eye me. They were quick to point out the differences in safety procedures among the union workforce and made sure I understood the rights and responsibilities I had. I am sure that there were people working alongside me in construction that fully understood their rights to lock out for themselves; they knew that what we were doing was wrong but they could not say anything for fear of losing their job. People came and went all the time in construction and you never knew if you would be welcome back the next week if you stood up and spoke out against the way the Foreman ran his crew. It is for this reason that unions have the ability to work safer. We are united and if one person was ever disciplined for speaking up for safety, the company would have quite the situation to deal with. We have safety in numbers, whether we take full advantage of this safety is up to each individual local.