Electric utilities often mandate a shift to a new fall-protection system. To protect the safety of their linemen, some companies put an abrupt halt to free climbing, and they roll out a new fall-protection system for their entire field workforce to use.

Using this approach, however, can create pushback from the linemen, especially the veterans, who prefer free climbing to using a fall-protection device. To prevent this from happening at its utility, Westar Energy in Kansas is involving its field crews from the testing and research stage all the way to implementation.

Some utilities may be waiting for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to one day mandate a fall-protection system. Westar, however, is taking a proactive approach to improve its already solid safety record.

Welcoming Field Feedback

Rather than only relying on vendor claims, Westar Energy has placed a variety of different fall-protection devices in the hands of its linemen. The utility formed a committee of linemen spread across its service territory to test the products. The committee includes troubleshooters, outside agents and line crews. As a result, Westar Energy has involved a diverse cross-section of linemen who are doing maintenance work, smaller projects and larger construction jobs.

Westar invited about 20 linemen to test the different devices and give their feedback. In the past year, the committee has met three times with the linemen continually looking at both the pros and cons of each of the fall-restriction devices currently being tested in the field.

When Westar finds a new manufacturer that offers significantly different types of fall-protection devices, the utility brings the committee together to try out the new device. The linemen then go into a central training center to test the new device, and then try it out in the field.

Turning to Pre-Apprentices

Westar Energy has not only turned to a select group of its veteran linemen to test out the fall-protection devices, but the company is also having its pre-apprentices start their climbing training on the different technology. By starting with workers new to the trade and then working toward its more experienced linemen, Westar hopes to get buy-in from the entire field workforce.

Westar is exposing pre-apprentices to using fall protection as they learn climbing techniques. Their perspective is often different because pole climbing is a new experience for them. Linemen bring years of experience and technique to their evaluation of the new equipment. They are also performing tasks and can evaluate how the equipment impacts that work. Each of the new devices impact the lineman's fundamental climbing skills in some way, and they face a significant learning curve for every scenario they encounter on the pole. For those reasons, Westar is trying to be very thorough about its training methods and its timeline to roll out fall-protection devices to its field workforce.

For the past two years, the company has sponsored a seven-day Line Pre-Qualification School. Westar Energy has learned that retention of employees in its lineman apprenticeship program is improved if it tests the candidates on climbing skills before they apply to become an apprentice for the company.

The candidates often come from electrical power and distribution technical colleges, or are current Westar employees looking to get into the line apprenticeship program. The goal of the Line Pre-Qualification School is to teach the applicants sound climbing fundamentals and how to use formal fall-arrest systems.

On the first day of the Line Pre-Qualification School, the students start from square one by learning how to free-climb short poles a few feet off the ground. Prior to pole-climbing certification, OSHA requires students to free climb no more than 4 ft off the ground without fall protection. On these short poles, the instructors stress the fundamentals of body positioning as well as the angle that the linemen's gaffs are in the pole.

Then when the students are adept at climbing the short poles, then they move to 40-ft poles, where they use a fall-arrest system. The students are required to use a system with a fall-arrest line, a rope grab device and a harness under their positioning belt. The fall-arrest line is hooked to rated steel arms that are made by a private manufacturing company in Kansas, inspected and stamped by a structural engineer.

For the first few days, the pre-apprentices will use Westar's training fall-arrest system, and for the last few days, they will rotate through stations using fall-restriction devices from manufacturers like Buckingham, Bashllin, DBI Sala and Jelco.

The instructors will assign a fall-protection device to each of the students, and then move them to another station. This will give the instructors a good litmus test of what to expect when they start working with Westar apprentices, who will be the next group to test the devices.

Fundamentals First, No Matter What

During Line Pre-Qualification School, Westar had a high instructor-to-student ratio. In fact, the company pulled six instructors off its line crews in its service area to offer assistance. Twenty-five students participated in the program, and 10 instructors helped to teach the pre-apprentices. By having several experienced instructors on hand, Westar is able to eliminate a lot of bad climbing habits, muscle memory and technical issues that can cause cutouts and falls.

It's critical for all the linemen — from pre-apprentices to journeymen — to have good fundamental climbing techniques. As such, Westar instills these skills in its Line Pre-Qualification School. Westar is striving toward a zero-accident goal. While a fall-protection device can prevent workers from falling to their death or facing a catastrophic injury, without employing good climbing fundamentals, or if they don't use the device properly, they can still get injured through cut outs, which Westar finds unacceptable.

Westar instructors lead the students through a variety of different drills during the Line Pre-Qualification School. For example, the pre-apprentices have to wear a fall-arrest system and move around obstacles such as ropes strung around a ring pole. In addition, they learn 12 fundamental knots with a 6-ft rope. They also learn how to lean out on one foot while on the pole and tie a knot on the rope. They also enjoy playing a game of keep away, in which two people are on the pole, with one on the inside and the other on the outside. They then must pass the ball without losing it or dropping it to the ground. This exercise encourages them to forget worrying about their balance and how high off the ground they are, and move around the pole instinctively.

The students also learn to make 360-degree walks around the pole. Maneuvering around the pole, both above and below the rope, teaches them how to work around streetlights, secondaries or services on a pole. It also enable them to move around transformers without worrying about their feet.

Once the students are grounded in fundamentals, the instructors will teach them how to do some basic line work like changing out insulators, ties and crossarms, and re-sagging wire. While they are doing this work, they are in a fall-restriction device.

Rolling It Out to the Field

Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach to integrating the fall-protection devices into its company, Westar Energy is taking its time to make sure it gets it right.

For example, the instructors have been using the fall-protection devices for more than two years. They started with the idea that they wanted to investigate the fall-protection system fully, do their own research and not force a particular type of fall-protection system on all the linemen.

In the utility industry, manufacturers offer a variety of fall-protection equipment. What Westar's training team discovered, however, is that fall-protection devices, like all climbing equipment, are a personal preference. For example, it often depends on a lineman's height, weight and motor skills.

Instead of throwing one fall-protection system on the table and requiring all of the linemen to use it, Westar plans to give the linemen some approved options of fall-protection devices from a handful of manufacturers. Based on the testing and feedback, the Westar training team will provide the linemen choices for fall-protection systems. Because their peers are doing the research, Westar hopes the other linemen will be more apt to try out the different equipment. Westar purchases personal protective equipment for its linemen; this new fall-protection equipment will also be provided.

Westar has already made a significant investment in fall-protection devices, and it already has ordered several devices from three of the manufacturers. The company plans to have all of its linemen outfitted in the fall-protection device of their choice within the next year.

Steve Charland (steve.charland@westarenergy.com), a training coordinator at Westar Energy, develops and administers training on overhead and underground for the line department. He worked as a lineman for 15 years, and he served as a divisional line supervisor who ran the crews for 16 years. He is the chairman of Westar's joint apprenticeship committee and oversees the apprenticeship program. In addition, he serves on the advisory board for the Manhattan Area Technical College and Pratt Community College.

Companies mentioned:

Bashlin Industries www.bashlin.com

Buckingham Manufacturing www.buckinghammfg.com

DBI-Sala www.dbi-sala-safety.com

JELCO www.jelco.ca

Westar Energy www.westarenergy.com