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Spring is in the Air; Paving Work is Close Behind

Posted 4/1/2019

By R. Bruce Wright, CPCU

In much of the country, spring is in the air, and that means that paving season is upon us.

Road maintenance and repair, with the concurrent construction crews that make them possible, provide an all-too-common challenge to utilities’ efforts to maintain proper system clearances and prevent contact with the lines. While poles and lines may be initially properly set and strung, later road maintenance activities can easily alter the situation. A new layer of pavement, when added to an existing road, can reduce overhead clearances, can incrementally, or in some cases dramatically, widen a roadbed and reduce roadside clearances. New roads and new private drives, can be sited in ways that cause potential conflicts with existing system components in ways that were not contemplated when the engineers originally designed the system and when it was constructed. In addition, the equipment used, most obviously the dump trucks filled with macadam, can extend into power lines when raised.

We all know that road repaving is as predictable as the seasons. And, we should also recognize that during the course of this work, there any number of situations like those mentioned above that may change your system’s clearances or otherwise lead to contact hazards. Some of these changes can cause parts of the system to fall below the clearance requirements of the NESC, or other guidelines that set the design and construction of lines in the system. 

You can argue that these changes are not your responsibility, but unfortunately, in the real world, such arguments are unlikely to be effective in defending you from a liability claim. There are several reasons why, including the fact that legal doctrines such as Constructive Notice may well apply, or the “Reasonable Person Test” may lead observers (And juries!) to conclude that new pavement is so “open and obvious” that it should be seen and reacted to, even without any special notice. And, as experts working with electricity, you may well be held to an even stricter standard, and have to demonstrate the "highest degree of care" in protecting the public. 

As a first step to finding these issues before they cause problems, it is important to maintain open lines of communication with the local authorities, including villages, towns, counties, as well as the State DoT, all of which may be involved in planned and executing road improvements. You should try to make sure that they include you on the list of interested parties that should be contacted early in the planning stages of this type of work. But, you can’t simply rely on others to notify you. Sometimes the rules are overlooked, or private parties fail to meet requirements for notice. 

As a result, utilities must take active steps to spot, identify and respond to changes that have the potential to affect clearance issues. The most obvious resource you have is your own staff. Your employees are out on the roads every day, and they should be asked to include information on any road construction or improvement activity when they report back to the office. Road construction and repair activity is a factor that should be included on the checklists, trouble report forms, or other guidelines you use in the process of conducting line patrol. 

A formal line patrol program is your best defense against changing circumstances in the field. And changes in road conditions (as well as other environmental changes such as construction, seasonal farm machinery, rainfall and the like) are clearly an important element of “line patrol,” despite the fact that these are not, strictly speaking, part of your lines or ROW. Even so, these issues are critical to the maintenance of a safe and reliable system, and inspections should not focus so much on the details that the big picture is lost! 

Paving, and related environmental issues, are a good example of the type of “open and obvious” issue that you should bring up and discuss when you conduct hazard identification training with your entire staff. You can easily train even the least technical employee to recognize and report to you if they see road work or paving taking place.