Warren’s Words of Wisdom: Hot Stick Voltage Detectors — A False Sense of Safety?

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Hot Stick Voltage Detectors — A False Sense of Safety?

There are several versions of voltage detectors I’ve seen firefighters and public works folks have purchased. Then they’ve asked me what I think of them. I have always told them the only 100% way that I can guarantee the power is shut off and safe for a first responder or public works to do anything (touching, pushing, rescuing) is when the utility has shown up and done whatever they need to do to make the situation safe. That means the utility has opened taps, fuses, grounded wires or whatever they have needed to do to tell you that you can safely do your work.

In a storm or emergency, many justify not waiting for the utility and take matters into their own hands, and sometimes rely on the voltage detectors as the all clear to do what they need to do. Let me point a few things out.

Depending on the conductor, electricity travels at something less than 186,000 miles/second but still faster than your kids attacking the dessert buffet at Foxwoods. So let’s say you walk up to down wire with a tree on it, hold out the hot stick, and nothing happens. Before you can turn around and say, “It’s safe,” a recloser 2 miles away resets and re-energizes the line to 23,000 volts; that takes like 0.0000038 seconds.

But maybe there wasn’t a recloser, and you did the road opening without incident—great job! I bet the success that time gave you confidence to do the same approach the next time and maybe another 100 times. Sorry, but in my opinion, you got lucky…until the day you didn’t.

As a certified safety professional, I believe any approach to a situation with electrical wires must have direct involvement with your local utility to ensure you will be as safe as possible. Any efforts to perform work without the direct involvement of the utility people is a risk. I personally would not risk my life using a hot stick voltage detector as a go/no-go to remove a tree with wires or to open a car with wires on it. If you do have one of these devices, please follow the manufacturer’s instructions for maintaining and testing.

Do hot stick voltage detectors have a role in keeping first responders and public works safe? Yes, they do, by alerting them to energized down wires. However, to utility linemen, any wire that is not “dead and grounded” will be treated as “hot,” meaning you do not trust it to be safe until it is and is handled with rubber gloves and sleeves. A hot stick gives you an instantaneous reading on the wire. That doesn’t mean the wire can’t be energized again; it just means at that instant the wire is hot or not.  Are you willing to risk a life that the wire will stay that way?

You didn’t know that, did ya?

Seat belts became mandatory in 1968, though then they were only lap belts. I had a driver’s license (in Tennessee you could get a Learners Permit at age 15 or get married at age 14, your choice), but I couldn’t afford a car with seat belts for several years. When I was able to afford that “new” car with seat belts, I was always suspicious of the lap belt; I thought it would just slice you in half while your face bounced off the steering wheel or dashboard.

Now with all the air bags and self-tensioning seat belts and safety devices designed to keep you in the car in an accident, I have found religion. I never move without the seat belts fully engaged for everyone. It’s just my way of staying alive for the long term—I’m not going to end it by being stupid (I hope).

I was saddened to read about five teenagers in an accident (all under the age of 18), with three being ejected from the car. Happily, the word is all five will survive though seriously injured—amazing. Seat belts keep you and your loved ones in a steel box designed to crumple around you. Getting ejected from your safety box by not wearing a seat belt is just dumb, I’m sorry to have to say. Teach your family by example, wear yours, always.

Give yourself a hand at saving your hands and fingers.

One safety PPE area that has become the greatest thing since screen doors on submarines (no they don’t, really, no mosquitos on subs) is the variety of great gloves available for every type of work. Cut-proof, stab-proof, oil resistant reflective, NY Yankee’s resistant…you name it, someone makes it. My suggestion to all public works folks is get and wear the correct pair of gloves for your work. Even if your town budget says, “Hey, those aren’t cheap!,” wait till they see the medical bills and workers’ comp costs from a serious hand injury that could have been prevented with the right PPE gloves.

Impossible to hold a chilled beverage, eat chips, handle the remote, and perform other important human functions with this.

Stay safe my friends!!

About Connecticut T2 Center

The Training & Technical Assistance Center at UCONN provides education and technical assistance to members of Connecticut's Transportation and Public Safety Community, including municipal public works directors, street and road maintenance superintendents and staff, city and town engineers, Connecticut Department of Transportation employees, transportation planners and law enforcement professionals serving as legal traffic authorities. We are Connecticut's LTAP Center
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