Safety Innovation in a High-Voltage World: Pacific Gas & Electric enlists manufacturers and workers to inspire new safety solutions

Pacific Gas & ElectricAs Jim Patchen drove down the freeway in northern California late last year, a light bulb went on – literally. The substation specialist at Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) spotted a truck designed to maintain lighted signs. Patchen knew immediately the vehicle held the key to solving a difficult challenge at the PG&E facilities he oversees.

Substation construction and maintenance requires tools that weigh as much as 150 pounds. “Lifting these heavy tools is awkward for employees and handling them comes with risk of soft tissue injuries,” Patchen says. He and his PG&E colleagues had designed a small tool hoist to mount on an aerial lift to lift these tools more easily. However, they could not find an aerial lift manufacturer that would allow the device to be used on their lifts.

The light-bulb moment Patchen experienced on the freeway that day was an aluminum jib crane mounted on the aerial basket of a maintenance truck. The lightweight hoist allowed workers to lift and use heavy tools with ease.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Patchen says. “The truck was just what I’d been looking for.”

Patchen contacted the truck manufacturer, Altec, and worked with company engineers to adapt the light and sign truck models for substation use. It was a six-month journey to perfect the system and train workers on using it.

“This system was an ergonomic success,” Patchen says. “And best of all, we were able to find a solution that was already available.”

Altec Tool Hoist

Creativity at work

The tool jib is just one example of how Patchen’s creative mind works when it comes to safety innovation. Whether it’s a better method of handling electrical cable or an improved hot stick for handing energized wires, he’s always on the lookout for new solutions.

Patchen joined PG&E more than 35 years ago as an entry-level steam plant worker. He moved up the ranks and eventually secured an electrical apprentice. Today his focus is improving PG&E worker safety and ergonomics. As a member of the substation tool committee, Patchen writes procedures on how to use tools correctly and safely in high-voltage environments.

“Substation work can be a dangerous environment. At PG&E we want to be innovative and on the cutting edge of safety improvements,” he says.

Safety legacy

Safety innovation is not new to PG&E.

Founded in 1905, PG&E was instrumental in the electrification of northern California. Through many mergers and acquisitions, more than 500 local utilities eventually joined together to form the organization. Today PG&E is one of the largest combined natural gas and electric energy companies in the U.S., with 5.1 million electric customers and 1,000 substations. Its service area stretches from Bakersfield in southern California north to Eureka, and from the Pacific Ocean east to the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Patchen took the lead in preserving the rich history of PG&E by founding and curating a utility artifact museum at PG&E headquarters in San Francisco, California. Many of the hundreds of items on display are safety tools developed over the years by PG&E workers. Artifacts include tools, meters, log books and instruction manuals that reflect the company’s history of innovation.

“Each object has a person behind it,” Patchen says. “You can see how tools evolved over time, often hand built by the people using them.”

Technology-driven solutions

In today’s high-tech world, Patchen frequently harnesses computer aided design and 3D printing as he works with manufacturers to create safety tool prototypes.

Using Tinkercad, a free app for 3D design, electronics and coding, Patchen created an advanced roller system to handle electrical wires more easily. Pulling giant reels containing thousands of feet of wires can be dangerous for workers and potentially damaging to the wires.  

“Pulling wires creates tension that can compromise the wires, leading to potential power outages and possible injuries to personnel,” he says.

After designing the better roller system on Tinkercad, Patchen worked with a manufacturer to produce a unit specifically for utility substations.

For another innovation, Patchen used a 3D printer to help design an adaptor that changes a commonly used switch stick into a shotgun device so the user can safely handle different clamps and devices associated with substation work.

Mini substation

Patchen’s innovations haven’t always been high-tech. Fifteen years ago, Patchen used cardboard tubes, spark plugs and a hot glue gun—parts found at a local hardware store—to create a 1/24 scale model substation for employee instruction.

“High-voltage training can be difficult. I realized I could create an accurate rendition of a substation to use as a hands-on training tool,” he says.

Over the years, the miniature substation evolved to the point that it’s high-tech, too. Measuring 2 feet tall and 9 feet long, the model now uses parts made with a 3D printer. It is fully functional and energized, interfacing with a laptop computer to simulate operation of a full-size facility.

 Substation

End user input

Another key to successful safety innovation at PG&E is grassroots involvement by the workers themselves. Solutions often start with field workers who have first-hand experience with safety challenges.

“Those who are doing the job day-in and day-out often have answers. Their solutions may not be perfected. But the ideas are priceless,” Patchen says.

“By working with manufacturers, we can help close that gap between the workers’ ideas and real-world tools. Ideally we can create a market so these tools can be made available to other substation personnel across the country.”

The Utility Expo is another source of safety inspiration for Patchen and his colleagues at PG&E. Held Sept. 28 to 30, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky, the event connects thousands of utility professionals with the latest equipment and technology. Patchen attended the show for the first time in 2019.

“It’s a great opportunity for manufacturers and users to come together to see what’s available and build relationships,” he says.

Tips for First Time Attendees to The Utility Expo

Patchen offers advice for those attending The Utility Expo for the first time.

“The show may be overwhelming, so it’s best to do research ahead of time,” he says. “Know your goals and what companies and products you want to investigate. But at the same time be open to unexpected opportunities.

“There are massive displays of equipment. Sometimes you don’t know you’re interested in something until you see it.”

Patchen’s most important tip? Follow up.

“Identify the top five opportunities to take action on after the show. Focus on those that meet your goals and are achievable for your organization,” he says. Follow-up actions might include connecting with a local representative or testing a prototype.

“It’s important to take what you’ve learned and seen at the show and see how it fits with your own organization,” Patchen advises. “With the advent of artificial intelligence, tools are getting smarter ever year. Innovation is delivering huge benefits in improved safety and ergonomics. Attending The Utility Expo is one way to keep ahead.”

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