Line work often can be backbreaking, shoulder-straining and wrist-twisting work. As such, forward-thinking electric utilities are investing in ergonomics programs and targeting prevention measures to protect their field workforce.

For example, Blue Grass Energy, a Kentucky distribution cooperative, has implemented a mandatory stretching program for its field crews, purchased battery-operated tools and tested back-saving technology. By being proactive rather than reactive, the company is minimizing the amount of lost labor hours due to injuries in the field.

Stretch It Out

One way in which the cooperative is protecting its field workforce is by requiring all the linemen to stretch out their muscles before each physically strenuous work day. Four years ago, Ashley Gabbard, a former physical trainer who is now employed by Blue Grass Energy, visited with the field crews and instructed them how to do a series of stretches.

Now all the linemen begin each work day with a 15-minute stretching session. The linemen stretch their arms over their heads, reach down to touch their toes, perform crunches and stretch out their hamstrings.

Blue Grass Energy employs between nine and 11 linemen in each of its four districts. The utility requires all of its field professionals to stretch every morning. For example, in one of the district offices, the linemen start work at 7:30 a.m., review any safety issues from the on-call shift the night before, receive their work orders and then move into an adjacent warehouse to perform a group stretching session.

This companywide stretching program has helped to keep injuries, as well as insurance premiums, down. In fact, Blue Grass Energy's safety coordinator has recorded a dramatic decline in back injuries and pulled hamstrings and muscles.

At first, some of the linemen were resistant to the mandatory stretching session, but over the years, they have become more receptive to it because of its effect on injury reduction.

In addition to participating in the stretching session, every two years a doctor of physical therapy instructs the cooperative's linemen on proper lifting, squatting and reaching techniques. The physician then offers tips on how the linemen can reduce strain to their knees, shoulders, elbows and backs during her on-site visit.

Strain Reduction

Another key part of the utility's ergonomics program is its investment in battery-operated tools. About three years ago, the company purchased each of the crews a Fairmont battery-powered crimper, which allows linemen to use one hand to pull a trigger on a 5-ton press. The field crews also have equipped their tool boxes with several DeWalt tools such as an 18-V battery-powered drill, which is lighter than a gas drill and strong enough to drill through a wooden pole.

The linemen at Blue Grass Energy are also on the lookout for other ergonomic tools and technology. For example, at the 2010 International Lineman's Expo, the linemen compiled a wish list, which they presented to the company's management. On the list, the linemen requested battery-powered cutters for overhead line work to replace their hand-operated cutters.

Back-Saving Technology

Blue Grass Energy is not only protecting linemen's wrists, elbows and shoulders but also their lower backs. Over the last few years, the utility has tested and purchased several products from a body belt to a pole tarp to a capstan winch.

About a year ago, Blue Grass Energy invited the designer of the BuckSqueeze on site to visit with the field crews. The utility opted to purchase a BuckSqueeze for each one of its linemen and require 100% fall protection. During the visit, however, Buckingham Manufacturing also showed one of the linemen a new product called the Buck ErgoBelt.

This product distributes the load of the BuckSqueeze between the lower back and the pelvis. As such, it supports the lower back when the lineman is working in an elevated position. Buckingham Manufacturing partnered with a doctor of physical therapy to analyze the strain a lineman experiences when working on a pole. She found that wearing the body belt around the buttocks causes stress to the lower vertebrae, especially when lifting heavy objects while in this position. The new product features a built-in lumbar pad that fits into the natural position of the spine and relieves stress to a lineman's lower back.

The cooperative purchased one of the new belts for a lineman to test out during an ongoing field trial. To use the belt, a lineman secures it around the small of the back using the abdominal stabilizer. The user then attaches the BuckSqueeze to the dee rings on the lower section of the belt. This creates a seat and transfers the weight from the lower back to the buttocks and upper thigh area. This configuration allows a lineman to work for a longer period of time without feeling exhaustion or strain.

In fact, one lineman noticed the difference right away when spending three to four hours building a transformer bank on a pole. The worker felt like he was cradled in a seat, and he didn't experience any strain on his back. Instead, all the pulling motion was exerted on his hips and thighs, which dramatically reduced any discomfort. Normally after two hours this lineman was ready to trade positions with the lineman in the bucket because of back strain and foot pain. Instead, the lineman worked for a full four hours in the Buck ErgoBelt, and he felt as good when he got down on the ground as when he started climbing the pole. The cooperative has offered its field crews the opportunity to replace their body belts with the Buck ErgoBelt when they wear out.

Blue Grass Energy has purchased other back-saving technologies such as a capstan winch from My-Te Winch. To use the drum-style winch, the linemen back up the line truck close to the pole or the meter base. They then wrap a bull line around the center of the drum five or six times, and the winch then goes back and forth. This product allows the linemen to pull long runs without straining their backs.

The field crews are also using another product called the Dirt Skirt from Ply-Tech Inc. to reduce back strain. The 12-ft by 12-ft tarp features a hole in the center and handles around the side of it. The linemen simply set the tarp over the location where they plan to drill a hole for a pole. During the pole-setting process, the dirt lands on the tarp rather than on the surrounding grass. Then when it comes time for the workers to shovel the dirt back into the hole, they use the derrick truck to lift the tarp and place the dirt where it needs to go.

To make this cleanup process even easier, Blue Grass Energy also has invested in hydraulic tamps from Fairmont, now branded as Greenlee Utility. Rather than doing the work by hand with wooden tamps, the linemen now can can connect the hydraulic tamp to the derrick trucks' hydraulic system. They then guide it into the proper position, resulting in a securely set pole with neat mound of dirt, all without any backbreaking shoveling.

By incorporating ergonomically designed tools and equipment, Blue Grass Energy is helping to reduce shoulder strain, back pain, and loss work time. Over the last few years, the utility has developed ways to protect its linemen from injuries through its stretching program and ergonomic tools and technology. As a result, the linemen are able to improve not only their productivity but also their safety in the field.

Dathan Lane ( is a first-class lineman with Blue Grass Energy in Nicholasville, Kentucky.

Blue Grass Energy

Companies mentioned:

Buckingham Manufacturing

DeWalt Tools

Greenlee Utility

My-TE Inc.

Ply-Tech Inc.