Anyone who has ever climbed a pole or opened a switch knows about safety. Linemen wear rubber gloves, hard hats and steel-toed boots. Apprentices learn the correct way to do the work. These safety values and skills are slowly absorbed as hundreds of hours are spent working alongside journeymen linemen in storms, on night calls, and in routine maintenance and construction assignments. When linemen top out as journeymen, they are trained, skilled and knowledgeable to do their work safely. They know the right way to perform each and every job.

Linemen are physically fit and mentally tough, too. They spend their days in all types of conditions, from extreme heat to sleet and snow, and from hot dry pavement to wet and slippery mud. If push comes to shove, they can hoist a 50-kVA tub with a couple of men and a set of blocks. The question remains: Why do men and women in the line trade still get hurt and unfortunately even killed?

Reflecting on my own career and incidents that I had witnessed as a journeymen lineman, a supervisor and safety professional for a Midwestern utility, I found a pattern. I discovered a space between what we know is right and the choice we sometimes make. Unfortunately, these choices sometimes lead to mistakes, incidents and injuries. The following are five keys to managing your space between to ensure you and your coworkers go home safe each day.

  1. Use tools in the proper manner

    A couple of years ago, a line worker was in the air drilling holes to frame a pole. A strong wind blew wood chips right into his face. Although he called for additional eye protection, which was in the truck bin, he continued drilling, using his hand as a shield instead. The crew spent the rest of the afternoon in the emergency room flushing his eyes.

    If linemen know anything, it's how to improvise, which can be both a strength and a weakness. Improvising with tools, or stopping short of using the right tool for the job, leads to incidents and injury. It's just a matter of time.

  2. The little things matter

    Who really needs a wheel chock? One day a crew was unloading a backyard machine from a trailer hooked to a one-ton pickup. Next to the trailer was a piece of wood, which someone kicked under the trailer as a wheel chock. As the linemen walked the yard machine off the trailer, the weight shifted and the whole rig slid down the hill. Everyone scattered like a flock of birds as the unit sailed through a yard and rested against a tree. Fortunately, no one was hurt by the runaway equipment, but it could have led to a serious injury for a crew member or the public. By the way, the wheel chock was on the trailer, but the crew opted not to use it. Little things, as you know, can make a big difference.

  3. Take the time it takes

    Since some linemen are in the air all day every day, being 10 ft or 15 ft in the air may seem like standing on the ground. I remember one time a lineman was working in a substation and needed to remove a set of grounds. He couldn't break the ground loose with the shotgun stick, so he climbed off of the ladder onto the top of a transformer.

    He was about 12 ft in the air and didn't take the 10 seconds to go back down and get his harness. He thought he didn't need fall protection, because he would only be at the high elevation for a short time. With leather gloves, he used a screwdriver to break the ground lead free. When he removed the ground, he was immediately shocked by induction voltage. It wasn't enough to kill him, but it knocked him off the transformer. He fell head first, his body hit the ground and everything went black. When he finally woke up, he spent several months in the hospital and endured several surgeries. He was fortunate enough to make a recovery, but others aren't quite so lucky. Safety only takes seconds, but injuries last forever.

  4. Wear personal protective equipment

    Along with fall protection, linemen may believe personal protective equipment (PPE) is optional, but it's not. For example, when hooking up a service, rules require that a lineman wears a hard hat, safety glasses, a harness and low-voltage rubber gloves. One day, I stopped one of my troublemen, who wasn't wearing any of his PPE except eye protection. I called him down and asked why. “Son,” he told me, “I've been doing this since before you were born. I know what to do and when to do it.”

    Many linemen have developed a bulletproof mentality that an accident can't happen to them and PPE is not needed. Since we cannot predict when and where an incident can happen, PPE should always be mandatory.

  5. Tailgate

    Every day, call the crew together, identify what hazards are out there, what can hurt you and what safety rules apply to the work at hand. In addition, stop throughout the day to make sure everyone is still on the same page. I remember when I was an apprentice, an old salty foreman would call everyone together every day to discuss job hazards. We would review the job, identify hazards and discuss the right way to get the work done. At the end of the tailgate, he would add, “And one last thing, no one gets hurt today.” That still echoes in my head: “No one gets hurt today.”

Linemen work around high-voltage lines, dangerous heights and extreme hazards, yet sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they're immune to injury. By taking shortcuts, however, linemen can put their lives on the line. Following the basic safety rules will help linemen protect themselves and their coworkers in the field and make the line trade a safer occupation for everyone.

Matthew Forck (matt@thesafetysoul.org), a journeyman lineman and certified safety professional, directs K-Crof Industries, LLC, an organization specializing in safety keynote presentations, training and safety consulting services. Download free safety tools at www.thesafetysoul.org.