Employee Safety: Safety at Hydro Plants

Trends from three surveys of hydro project owners indicate that safety incidents may be increasing at hydro facilities. Work is needed to improve safety and focus employees on safe work practices.

By Mary Helen Marsh

Companies with operational responsibilities for both hydroelectric and fossil plants typically report safety statistics in a single data set to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Consequently, it can be difficult to identify any trends or needs specific to the hydro industry.

In an effort to uncover safety trends related specifically to hydro, the National Hydropower Association’s (NHA) hydraulic power committee conducted three surveys of NHA member companies. The first survey was conducted in 2006, with 17 respondents providing data for the period from 2000 to 2005. For the second survey, completed in August 2007, 11 companies provided information on their hydro operations safety statistics from 2000 to 2006. For the third survey, completed in August 2008, 11 companies provided information on their statistics from 2000 to 2007.

Results of the 2008 survey show several interesting trends. For example, the number of safety incidents requiring medical attention decreased in 2007 after spiking in 2006 (see Figure 1). However, in many other areas covered by the survey, safety incidents increased. Between 2003 and 2007, the OSHA recordable rate for hydro facilities increased to 4.26 from 3.33. (Note: An OSHA recordable rate of 1 corresponds to 1 medical attention injury for every 100 people working a standard 2,000-hour year.) This rise indicates a 28 percent increase in OSHA recordable safety incidents at hydro facilities.

With regard to the number of incidents recordable to OSHA, 2008 survey results showed a climb over the past few years, from 35 in 2004 to 47 in 2007 (see Figure 2). And the number of incidents resulting in time away from work (i.e., “lost time”) increased from seven in 2000 to 21 in 2007 (see Figure 3). This indicates the severity of injuries is increasing.

During the time period covered by all three surveys (2000 to 2007), there were no fatalities at the hydro plants owned by the companies participating in the surveys.

Injuries, lost time statistics

To identify possible causes of safety incidents, survey respondents were asked to indicate the day of the week and the time of day injuries occurred, the age of the worker, contributing factors (such as a pre-existing condition or loss of concentration), the type of injury, and the body part(s) involved. The following numbers relate to 2007 results.

Responses to the survey indicated slightly more injuries occurred Monday (20 percent), Tuesday (20 percent), and Wednesday (22 percent) than on other days of the week. The number of incidents was lowest on weekends (7 percent on Saturday and 3 percent on Sunday), likely due to the reduced staffing levels in hydro plants on these days.

Survey results revealed spikes in the number of injuries at key times of the day. These include: when work starts (8 a.m. to 9 a.m.); before lunch (11 a.m. to noon); and in the afternoon (1 p.m. to 4 p.m.). This could mean that injuries are more common due to distractions and work interruptions or when workers rush to finish at the end of the day.

The take-away message from this trend is that action could be taken to slow workers down and refocus on jobs, especially around break periods and at the beginning and end of the day. This could include reviewing the pre-job brief, performing a job hazard analysis, or providing a short safety message to refocus the work team.

Workers most commonly involved with safety incidents were 50 to 59 years old (285 incidents), followed by 40 to 49 (267). The age of workers with the fewest numbers of incidents was those 20 to 29 (28) and 60 and older (57). When reviewed with the respondents, this was generally felt to be indicative of the age distribution of the workforce. One way hydro project owners could help aging workers avoid injuries is to provide training related to stretching and soft-tissue injury prevention.1

Contributing factors most often at fault for injuries include a pre-existing condition, working alone, acting to save time, and other (primarily related to hearing loss).

The most common types of injuries at hydro plants were sprains, lacerations, and other (primarily related to hearing loss). Additional types of injuries were cumulative trauma, eye injury, fracture, bee sting, chemical contact, and burns. To help prevent sprains, some companies are introducing stretching and wellness programs. Others are encouraging increased attention to personal protective equipment, such as wearing goggles to keep dust out of workers’ eyes.

Body parts most commonly injured, according to survey respondents, were the arm and back. Again, stretching programs can help prevent back injuries. Other prevention programs should be developed within the company, to be applicable to specific conditions at hydro projects.

Reducing future incidents

Although the survey gathered data from a small population, the results were interesting enough to point to some common-sense actions that hydro owners can take to keep injuries low. These include:

Figure 1: The number of safety incidents requiring medical attention at hydro facilities owned and/ or operated by respondents to NHA’s safety surveys spiked in 2006 before decreasing in 2007.
Click here to enlarge image

— Refocusing employees after lunch or breaks;

— Holding mid-week informal team safety discussions and workshops on preventing soft-tissue injuries;

— Encouraging stretching before work begins, hanging posters that feature stretching exercises, and teaching supervisors and foremen basic stretching techniques so they can lead crews in stretching exercises;

Figure 2: The number of incidents at hydro facilities owned and/or operated by safety survey respondents that are recordable by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration increased from 35 in 2004 to 47 in 2007.
Click here to enlarge image

— Sharing data with employees to heighten awareness of the fact that concentration and time pressure play a key role in a safe work environment; and

— Holding employee focus groups to review incident data and look for opportunities for improvement.

Figure 3: Incidents involving lost time at hydro facilities owned and/or operated by safety survey respondents are increasing, which indicates severity of injuries also may be increasing.
Click here to enlarge image

Why are safety incidents at hydro facilities increasing? This trend could be related to the amount of construction and capital improvement work currently taking place at hydro facilities in the U.S. More than 200 hydro projects in North America are in the midst of significant project rehabilitation work.2 In addition, numerous new projects are being built in the U.S. and Canada.3,4

To continue to monitor safety incidents at hydro facilities, NHA’s hydraulic power committee plans to conduct another survey in 2009 (to collect 2008 statistics). Combined with data from the previous surveys, the results should further increase understanding of what actions can be taken to make and keep hydro facilities excellent examples of safety in practice.


  1. Kiefer, Kathy, “S-T-R-E-T-C-H It Out: A Back Care Program that Works,” Hydro Review, Volume 19, No. 5, August 2000, pages 120-121.
  2. ”Snapshots of North American Rehabilitation,” Hydro Review, Volume 27, No. 8, January 2009, pages 12-20.
  3. ”Hydro Development: A New Day,” Hydro Review, Volume 27, No. 2, April 2008, pages 16-22.
  4. Fortin, Pierre, and Gabrielle Collu, “Hydro Development in Canada: An Update,” Hydro Review, Volume 27, No. 7, November 2008, pages 10-14.

Mary Helen Marsh is general manager, hydro, for Exelon Corp. She analyzed results from the safety surveys developed and administered by the National Hydropower Association’s hydraulic power committee.


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