Working Alone—The Risks and Rewards of Independent Work

By Ben Keck, Regional Supervisor

If you were to ask a consulting utility forester (CUF) what they like most about their job, I can guarantee that most of them will say something related to “working alone and the freedom it provides”. Let’s see if my assumption holds true …

When surveyed, one CUF stated, “The best part [of the job] would have to be a combination of the quiet time it provides as well as the fact that there isn’t always someone looking over your shoulder.” (This particular CUF also made sure to note that he has three noisy kids at home.) When asked the same question, another CUF stated, “I prefer working alone because I can move at a pace that I’m comfortable with and not have to worry about waiting for someone to catch up or vice versa.” A third CUF simply stated that his favorite part of the job is “being alone and getting to make decisions on my own.”

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. The main theme is obviously working alone, but I would go further in saying that the true underlying theme is that CUFs enjoy their job primarily because it gives them a certain measure of independence that many jobs can’t offer.

Prior to writing this article, I sent out a survey to approximately 70 CUFs working throughout the state of California. In the survey, I asked the CUFs a series of questions about their job and how they felt about working alone. Upon reading through the responses, I was amazed at how similar many of the answers were. Positive phrases like “being your own boss”, “making your own decisions”, “not having someone looking over your shoulder”, and “planning your own daily schedule” were very common responses and clearly indicate that CUFs like their job because they love the freedom and independence it provides. Sure, there are often production deadlines and the pressures of schedule, but for the most part, a CUF is given a task and then sent out to complete it on their own.

A few of the other common responses from CUFs on why they enjoy their job is that they get to spend a majority of their time outside (which can sometimes be a downside to the job depending on where you live). They also get to see places and scenery that most people never get the chance to see. And lastly, they often get to meet some very interesting property owners and are exposed to wild animals (even though sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two). However, the overwhelming response was that a majority of CUFs enjoy their job because of the freedom and independence it provides.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with what a CUF’s job entails, their general role is to inspect vegetation along the power lines. They are assigned a route, grid, or entire circuit of power lines and proceed to inspect the vegetation along those lines for hazard trees or vegetation that is growing too close to the power lines. Once the inspection is complete, they typically provide a work plan to a tree crew who then goes out and does the actual tree work that the CUF deemed necessary. There are usually deadlines for when an inspection needs to be completed, but for the most part, a CUF works at an appropriate pace in order to safely and efficiently get the job done.

Working alone and having the freedom and independence that comes with the job is nice, but it can also have its difficulties. When asked about the difficult aspects of working alone, many CUFs responded with answers such as “response time to an injury could be increased”, “lack of colleague interaction”, “having to deal with difficult situations on your own”, and one CUF simply stated that “it gets lonely sometimes.” These responses are important challenges that need to be addressed if a company wants to improve the safety and overall well-being of its employees. Based on the survey answers, safety is the number one concern when working alone.

From a company standpoint, working alone definitely has its challenges. If a CUF is injured or needs help with a task, they are often far from co-workers and may not even be near a place of residence. Most everyone in today’s working world has a cell phone, but there are often times that CUFs work in remote areas with little to no reception. In the event of an injury or emergency, what is a CUF supposed to do?

I personally got my work vehicle stuck in the snow quite a few years ago in a very remote area and had no cell phone reception. Luckily, I was able to hike an hour to the top of a nearby lookout and get enough reception to send out a text to my supervisor.

I’ve also known two CUFs over the years who both got stuck overnight in two separate incidents. One got his vehicle stuck while driving down an icy access road with no cell phone reception. He ended up walking 20 miles and arrived at the nearest main road around 3 a.m. He then hitchhiked to a friend’s house in the area and called his supervisor. In the other incident, a CUF drove down a remote access road and a sudden rainstorm hit as he was out inspecting. Before the CUF had time to leave the area, the road washed out and he had no way of getting out. Luckily, he had enough cell reception to send out texts, but due to the extreme weather and the difficult terrain, the CUF ended up having to stay the night in his truck until rescuers arrived the next morning.

Incidents like these are surprisingly common in this line of work. A company can do its best to prevent them from occurring, but as we all know, sometimes it’s unavoidable. We are all humans and we all make mistakes. One definition of a mistake is “something that is unintentional.” So how can a person prevent something that they didn’t intend to do? The answer is they can’t. However, there are some proactive measures that a company can take that may not present but can at least help alleviate the consequences of an incident:

  • Establish proper emergency protocols and train on these protocols and how to react in specific situations. If a CUF is adequately trained on how to respond in a certain emergency, then the outcome of the situation will likely improve.
  • Provide employees with adequate training and equipment in order to decrease the likelihood that an incident will occur and/or to reduce the consequences if one were to occur.
  • Provide employees with adequate, well-functioning equipment. Items such as hard hats, safety vests, safety glasses, dog/bear spray, whistles, sturdy boots with ankle support and so on, are great pieces of equipment that can help prevent incidents from occurring and are also relatively easy to provide.
  • Provide employees with four-wheel drive vehicles that have aggressive-tread tires depending on the terrain
  • Provide a good cell phone with a service provider that works well for the specific area.
  • Equip company vehicles with winches so employees are better able to pull themselves out in the event that they get stuck. I can think of a few specific examples where a CUF most likely would have had to stay the night in their vehicle had they not had the winch to pull them out.
  • Have a check-in/check-out policy with the CUFs. It can be as simple as a daily text to their supervisor. If a CUF doesn’t check-out at the end of the day, then the supervisor can immediately follow up with that CUF in order to make sure that everything is OK.
  • Add GPS units on all vehicles
  • Have an emergency locator beacon for use in remote areas if someone gets lost or stuck and can greatly reduce the time that it takes help to arrive.

The list goes on and on!

With all that being said, realistically, there’s only so much that a company can practically and financially do, and it would be darn near impossible to provide safety equipment and training for every possible situation. Each contract and geographic area is relatively unique and faces its own set of challenges. However, a company should always do its best in providing the necessary equipment and training for its employees to get the job done safely. When it comes to safety, one should never turn a blind eye. Whether working alone or not, we should always be proactively looking for ways we can improve the safety and well-being of our fellow co-workers.

THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE JULY-AUGUST 2018 ISSUE OF THE UTILITY ARBORIST NEWSLINE.