How close would you stand to a jet engine?

In the early 90s, utilities were in the midst of massive change as downsizing, right-sizing—or whatever you called it — swept the continent. Driven by technology, fewer people were needed to get the same work done and from this emerged an industry called Process Re-engineering.

Our utility was engulfed in change. Our new business processes resulted in many changes in responsibilities for many people, but one affected our department very significantly. At the time we were responsible for technical training associated with revenue metering.

The proposed change would reduce both travel and the number of people needed to deliver metering services to residential customers by combining two separate job functions together into a single job. I cannot recall the exact numbers, but for illustrative purposes it was projected that we could combine the work of 15 meter installers and 95 meter readers into, say, 100 multi-disciplined metering workers, resulting in a net reduction of 10 people.

The challenge was that the technical competence required in the newly created position was higher than that of the 95 meter readers.

To safely perform their duties, meter installers must understand the meter nameplate, know how to identify the proper device for a service and be competent to work around energized equipment. Quite simply, the meter readers were not competent to do this work.

A comprehensive training program was developed and delivered. It covered many aspects of the residential service which included both theoretical and practical components where employees had to demonstrate their competency.

From the training, participants learned about the risks associated with metering and energized equipment. Most importantly, they obtained the knowledge and skills needed to safely manage the risks.

Of the many risks at the electrical service entrance, there is one that stands out above all others. This risk came as a surprise to every single participant in our training. In fact, none of the meter readers were aware that this risk even existed.

Most meter readers thought the greatest risk was electrical shock. Contact with 120 V is a risk; however, a far greater risk is the fault level available at the service entrance in the event of a ground fault. The potential physical harm to people and property as a result of a short circuit in a meter base can be catastrophic.

For our system, we calculated the maximum possible fault level at a 200 A 120/240 Volt service (close to a large substation, short service run, large distribution transformer, etc.). Here’s what we found: the power delivered in the event of a short circuit (even though only momentarily) is comparable to the power delivered by a typical jet engine that you see on the wings of a large airplane.

In our training, we explained this to our participants and asked them, “Would you stick a screw driver into a jet engine while it’s running? What kind of precautions would you take around a jet engine?”

A fault at a meter base has the ability to instantaneously produce the same power delivered by a jet engine. But unlike the jet engine, which makes all kinds of noise and produces so much wind that you wouldn’t dare get too close, a meter base just sits there — you can’t even tell if it is energized by looking at it.

Trainees told us that their biggest take-away was their newfound appreciation of something which they were previously unaware.

As for me, I learned that we must be open to looking at situations in new ways so we can see what was once invisible. Secondly, use appreciation (appreciation of the risk, work methods, design, etc.) to replace feelings of fear and lack of understanding.

The new service model was safely implemented and I hear from colleagues who still work at the utility that they continue to re-engineer their metering and customer services processes.

Steve Foran
Steve Foran is an electrical engineer with an MBA that has been transformed into a Gratitude Engineer. Steve specializes in helping organizations overcome the attitudes of entitlement and complacency that somehow seem to creep into workplaces. Through his research, speaking, writing and consulting he helps organizations build healthier workplace cultures. You can find out more about Steve and his work at or you may contact him through LinkedIn: or Twitter @ForanSteve