Around-the-clock work takes heavy toll on staff

Toronto Hydro crews safely performed 3 months’ work in first 5 days after massive ice storm
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/25/2014

By Liz Foster

Toronto was hit by a massive ice storm in late December that left more than 300,000 residents without power over the holidays.

In response, Toronto Hydro dedicated all available resources to restore power as quickly as possible. Hydro crews — in collaboration with mutual assistance partners flown in from out of province — worked around the clock to clear debris and restore power. Ultimately, the cleanup effort lasted 13 days.

Toronto Hydro crews performed three months’ worth of work in the first five days following the storm, said Ben LaPianta, vice-president of distribution grid management at Toronto Hydro.

“That’s astounding,” he said. “They worked efficiently and they worked as quickly as possible while maintaining safety standards.”

Only one injury was reported throughout the entire cleanup effort, with a branch falling and striking a crew member in the head. Because the employee was wearing personal protective equipment — which includes a hard hat — the injury was minor.

Thanks to Toronto Hydro’s safety procedures and work approval process, crews walked out of a colossal cleanup effort with a safety record the city can be proud of, said LaPianta.

“During the ice storm... we didn’t change any of our safety procedures,” he said. “You don’t circumvent normal safety procedures and work approval process just because there’s high volume. In fact, when it becomes higher volume, it becomes even more critical that you stick to your existing safety procedures.”

In addition to always wearing personal protective equipment, crews spend upwards of 20 minutes establishing a safe work zone. They establish a buffer between their equipment and traffic — both pedestrian and vehicular. They plan out their walking route to avoid slips, trips and falls. Because ice affects the insulation value of equipment — essentially making everything a conductor — crews treat all equipment as if it is energized until it can be definitively tested.

“They don’t take any chances,” said LaPianta. “That takes longer but it’s a safety precaution that’s necessary during an ice storm.”

Along with electrical contact, fatigue was one of Toronto Hydro’s biggest concerns in the days following the ice storm.

Efforts were in place around the clock to restore power and clear debris, but crews were limited to working strict 12-hour shifts. The shifts were limited in anticipation of a long restoration and cleanup process, in an effort to prevent burnout.

“Past the 12-hour mark, productivity goes down,” said LaPianta. “And when you’re tired, there’s a greater likelihood of an injury. You’re not as alert as you otherwise would be. We were rigorous about the 12 hours on, 12 hours off.”

Legal risks

Strict adherence to the 12-hour shift schedule was also important from a legal perspective, according to Howard Levitt, senior partner at Levitt & Grosman in Toronto.

In emergency situations, it is possible for employers to apply for exemptions from the Ministry of Labour concerning maximum hours of work. But even during emergencies, employers can still be found negligent for putting workers in a position where they are pushed beyond normal human capacity.

It could be argued the work becomes hazardous due to its volume, said Levitt. Employees could refuse to work beyond a certain number of hours under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

“A state of emergency doesn’t mean the work is any more or less dangerous,” said Levitt, listing a number of situations that could create cause for legal concern when an employer makes use of a 24-7 work schedule.

Employees who are suddenly forced to work different shifts than usual or longer hours might have a discrimination case based on family status if they are precluded from their parental or childcare obligations, said Levitt.

A worker with a physical disability that prevents her from working at night could have a human rights case if her employer does not accommodate her.

Bringing workers in from out of province to help with the cleanup effort created further safety concerns.

“They have to work according to Ontario law... because they’re obviously doing the work here,” said Bruce Skeaff, media relations co-ordinator at the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

“Even if they’re employed by somebody else, if they’re working in Ontario, they’ve got to comply with the law here.” Mutual assistance participants brought in from other provinces had to participate in two orientations before they could begin working.

The first orientation focused on Toronto Hydro and the work they would be expected to do. A second orientation focused on safety procedures, interfacing with the control room and proper work permits.

“They may be unaware of some of the safety hazards that exist just by virtue of the fact that they’re not familiar with our system,” said LaPianta of the out-of-province workers.

“So you plan for the worst and hope for the best. If planning for the worst causes you to spend more money or spend more time, it’s a small price to pay to get out of a 13-day event with literally one minor injury.”

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