The utility industry forms the core of our energy infrastructure. The public depends on its services and rightly takes for granted that the electricity is always flowing. But with this service comes a number of public and occupational hazards. Workers suffer illnesses and injuries from exposure to spills or leaks of radiation, chlorine gas, PCB-contaminated oil, sulfuric acid, or potassium permanganate. Other hazards include: electrocution, crushing from cave-ins during excavations, asbestos, mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium and other heavy metals to name a few. We see UWUA members at work in everyday lives, but their work hazards go unnoticed. Similarly, the public hazards from the industry such as air and water pollution and catastrophic releases of toxins often are seen as everyday circumstances until there is a dramatic accident that draws our attention to the utility industry, such as Three Mile Island. More often than not, a worker training is the first and only line of defense to either prevent or stem hazards in the workplace or the public. Sometimes these invisible hazards break into full view as happened during the Kingston, Tennessee coal ash spill. The spill deposited about 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash sludge into the Emory River and its environs destroying or damaging 26 homes with an expected cleanup cost $1 Billion (2). There are less spectacular hazards of coal-fired electrical plants'combustion by-products that are reported in the EPA's Steam Electric Power Generating Point Source Category: Final Detailed Report: The total amount of toxic pollutants currently being released in wastewater discharges from coal-fired power plants is estimated to be significant and raises concerns regarding the long-term impacts to aquatic organisms, wildlife, and human health that are exposed to these pollutants.""""""""(3) Even though the EPA has yet to classify coal ash as hazardous waste, they are applying their own hazardous waste standard to it. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensations and Liability Act (CERCLA) is now used as the guiding standard for coal incident clean-ups. Additionally, the EPA has determined that at least 44 other holding ponds across the United States pose a """"""""High Hazard"""""""" to nearby communities (4). Because coal fly ash sludge stored in holding ponds does not easily become airborne, it doesn't pose a severe health risk to workers. However, electrical generation workers can be exposed to dry coal ash that may become airborne in electrical generation facilities. Coal combustion by-products escape boilers that lack scrubbers. In the case of positive flow boilers, coal ash dust escapes through holes in the boiler and covers everything around the boiler. This dry coal ash dust often contains inorganic arsenic, hexavalent chromium, mercury, and lead. When dry, this ash dust can contaminate workers through inhalation or ingestion, causing chronic health problems to exposed workers. Utility workers are exposed to hazardous substances through a wide variety of venues. Like industrial workers they may be exposed to a broad array of hazardous chemicals that are used onsite during the manufacturing process (making electricity, purifying drinking water). Like construction workers, they may be exposed to contaminated soil during excavation/trenching operations to install, maintain or repair pipes or lines. Like service workers they must go to industrial settings or other potentially hazardous sites to install, maintain or repair the equipment that distributes the product. Finally, like Emergency Response workers they are first responders to natural, man-made or accidental disasters to repair and to reestablish utility service.

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Utility Workers Union of America
United States
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