A PG&E insider is making new allegations against the company’s already troubled gas-line mark and locate program, saying workers there were under so much pressure to satisfy their bosses that they resorted to illicitly doing highly dangerous work they weren’t trained to do around live electrical lines.
Katherin Mack – who had been a superintendent in the company’s so-called 811 program – described the push for workers to stay on schedule as a “nightmare,” saying, “We had pressure that I have never felt in any other place in PG&E at that time.”
Mack’s testimony has now prompted state Public Utilities Commission regulators to expand their probe of PG&E’s 811 program – which already is dogged by allegations that crews falsified as many as a quarter million responses as being on time when in fact they were beyond the two day deadline set by state law.
That program has been featured prominently in company ads with workers spray painting the path of buried lines so construction crews can avoid digging into them.
It was those same 811 workers, Mack testified in March, who resorted to shortcuts to get their work done under deadline. One of the shortcuts, she said, involved workers venturing on their own into high-voltage vaults to hook up their equipment to find buried electrical lines.
Mack, now an auditor with the company, said working in such vaults is restricted to qualified electrical workers, but untrained 811 crews felt they had to do it when electrical crews failed to show up.
Mack said 811 crews kept their own, unauthorized, insulated poles, known as “hot sticks” on their trucks. Only qualified electricians are authorized to use hot sticks around exposed high voltage wires, she said.
“It’s bad,” was how Dan Mulkey, a retired PG&E electrical engineer, summarized Mack’s allegations.
One wrong move by an untrained worker inside a vault with live wires, he says, could trigger an explosion. But he said he could understand why workers, trained primarily to find gas lines, might resort to doing the dangerous work to meet management expections.
On one side, he says, workers need to get their 811 gas lines marked promptly as required by state regulations. On the other hand, crews felt they did not have the luxury of waiting for qualified electrical crews to do the work inside the vault to help locate electrical lines.
“If you are kind of coercing the gas guy to get his work done, he’s got a choice: violate rule A, or violate rule B -- which of them do you want him to do?”
While Mack was unable to identify a case of an 811 worker who was injured as a result of any shortcuts, she did say that pressure caused work quality to suffer. She cited an incident in San Jose when a backhoe operator was injured when he dug hurt into an unmarked electrical line – a line that PG&E’s records indicated had been marked accurately.
The revelation about that dig-in accident prompted State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) to urge Santa Clara County prosecutors to investigate.
“I think a crime was committed,” Hill said. “This clearly looks like criminal behavior.”
Hill says he agrees with Mack’s assessment about the 811 program being a “nightmare.”
“They are putting people at risk. and they are doing that knowingly,” Hill said. “Management is telling them to do it and they are getting away with it.”
State regulators say they are now probing both the incident in San Jose and Mack’s allegations about untrained workers in their ongoing 811 regulatory investigation.
PG&E said in a statement that it too is investigating Mack’s account of that backhoe incident in San Jose. Meanwhile, the company says it has added crews and shaken up management of the 811 program in light of alleged conduct it calls “unacceptable.”