Some jobs are inherently more dangerous than others. Sitting at a desk is generally less dangerous than being a fireman or police officer, for example. One such extremely high-risk profession is that of electric utility lineworkers. Picture an office space that routinely involves working with electric lines placed high above the ground — often those lines have high voltage running through them. To avoid injury or death, you’ve got to pay full attention to the work at hand.
No matter how careful the practices of individual workers and crews, some things are outside of their control. Often a lineworker’s workplace is the side of a busy roadway, and that makes an already dangerous job even more hazardous.
When Gov. Bill Haslam signed Public Chapter 40 into law on April 5, that workspace got quite a bit safer. Tennessee’s “move-over” law had already created a safety zone to protect police, firefighters and other emergency personnel. This revision expands the existing law by adding utility service equipment to the list of vehicles for which — when they’re properly marked and parked on the side of the road — motorists are required to either slow down or move over. Tennessee’s law also already covers highway maintenance vehicles and stationary recovery vehicles (wreckers).
Tennessee worked with two seasoned and well-respected legislators to craft the law. Senate Bill 1497 was introduced by Sen. Steve Southerland of Morristown, and the companion bill, House Bill 1654, was introduced by Rep. Phillip Johnson of Pegram. The bills passed both houses of the State Legislature by overwhelming margins. The revised law becomes effective on July 1.
The idea of introducing this new law was discussed by electric cooperative leaders last year after North Carolina passed an expansion of its move-over law following the tragic death of a Duke Energy employee. Tennessee has been fortunate in never having a traffic-related lineworker fatality. However, there have been close calls in which permanent injuries have been sustained. During discussion on the bill, one legislator mentioned that having motorists move over could actually cause an accident. While it’s possible that inattentive or reckless drivers could cause a mishap, an accident involving a vehicle and pedestrian is usually far more tragic.
The Tennessee Department of Safety reports that “each year, more than 100 highway and street construction workers die because of vehicle crashes or equipment accidents on the job. Another 20,000 are injured in those incidents.” Roadway crashes are the leading cause of occupational fatalities in the U.S.
Electric co-op vehicles aren’t the only utility vehicles covered by the change. So are all other utility service vehicles, including those used by municipal electric systems, telephone cooperatives or utility districts. All utilities are included with the revised law: electricity, natural gas, water, wastewater and telephone services.
To warrant move-overs by motorists, utility service vehicles must be stationary and giving a signal by the use of flashing lights. Specifically, drivers must yield the right-of-way by making a lane change into a lane not adjacent to the utility vehicle if on a four-lane highway with two lanes proceeding in the same direction as the approaching vehicle. If changing lanes would be impossible or unsafe, drivers are to proceed with due caution, reducing and maintaining a safe speed for road conditions.
The inconvenience of slowing down a bit is a small price to pay if it makes the difference in ensuring that a worker goes home safely after the end of a hard day at work.