When Paul Lira competed in the very first International Lineman's Rodeo 28 years ago, hard hats and safety glasses were optional, and bucket trucks didn't exist. As he watched the competitors at this year's event, however, he noticed that all the contestants wear not only personal protective equipment, but many teams are also competing with 100% fall protection.

As a veteran lineman, Lira said he had mixed emotions about moving from free climbing to no fall arrest, but he says that 100% tie-in will be something linemen will need to adapt to in this generation.

“I am old school, and I feel like if we can't free climb, we won't do it, but we need to set aside the macho thing for the sake of safety,” said Lira, the Local 304 business manager who has served as a competitor and a judge for the Rodeo, an annual event showcasing apprentices' and linemen's skills in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

While an increasing number of utilities are requiring their apprentices and journeymen to wear 100% fall protection while competing, it could soon become a requirement rather than a option.

Rick Childers, who has served on the International Lineman's Rodeo Association (ILRA) for the last 12 years, estimates that about half of the utilities are now requiring their employees to compete in a full fall-arrest system. In the next five years, he expects that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will mandate 100% fall protection, and if that happens, then the IRLA will follow suit.

Jackson Electric Cooperative, Black River Falls, Wisconsin, is already requiring its apprentices to compete in 100% fall protection at the rodeo. Starting on Jan. 1, 2012, however, the utility also will require journeymen linemen to use fall-arrest systems from Buckingham Manufacturing, Jelco Inc., Miller Fall Protection or Klein Tools.

“I've noticed today that there are a lot of teams that are moving into fall restraint,” said Marty York, a journeyman lineman who has been in the industry for the last 15 years. “We climbed in them and have tried them, and it's a new tool that you just have to get used to. We competed with them in the Kentucky Lineman's Rodeo, and we won first place overall.”

Safety Sessions

To help educate the linemen on all the new fall-protection technology out on the market, the ILRA presented a side-by-side comparison of climbing fall restraints at its half-day safety conference at the Overland Park Convention Center in Overland Park, Kansas, U.S. For example, Buckingham Manufacturing, Capital Safety, Jelco, Bashlin Industries, and Miller Fall Protection Products, demonstrated how their products worked on a portable 20-ft (6-m) wood pole, which was set on a sidewalk outside the convention center.

“We hadn't done fall protection for a few years, so we wanted to make it an event for people to get more information on the pole climbing restraints,” Hayward said. “We took an hour-and-a-half outside, and each group was given 15 to 20 minutes for their demonstration. It was a good event.”

The fall protection session was only part of the day-and-a-half safety conference, which drew 160 participants for the first day of the event, Hayward said. The conference used to only last for a half a day, but the organizers decided to expand it to a day-and-a-half to provide more education on a variety of topics. For example, at the 2011 event, John Beaver from Ameren UE delivered a presentation on the road to safety. Rick Bush, editorial director for Transmission & Distribution World, then led a panel discussion with Entergy, Kansas City Power & Light and HD Electric on personal voltage detection.

The attendees also watched a personal injury video from Westar. The video profiled a worker who had lost both arms due to a burn.

“We try to start every year with a personal injury story to set the tone for the conference to let the workers know what we are dealing with,” Hayward said. “We have a lot of younger linemen, and we are very proud of the trade. We need to show them how to stay out of trouble.”

Dale Warman, co-chairman of the ILRA and retired from KCP&L, then talked the attendees through the process of informing families and safety professionals following an accident. On the second day of the conference, Bill Neiles talked about crane certification, and Carl Potter then delivered a keynote session about safety in the utility industry.

Products on Display

Following the safety conference at the Overland Park Convention Center, the doors were open to the exhibit hall for the 2011 Expo. This year's trade show featured about 70 vendors, who demonstrated such products as software, hand tools, and personal protective equipment.

Calvin Hudson, battalion commander for the 249th U.S. Army Engineer Batallion in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, brought 26 soldiers to the expo and the rodeo. He said the Expo was a good way for the soldiers to see the latest technology and safety equipment. Clint Pearson, battalion commander sergeant major, said by attending the Expo, the U.S. Army is able to upgrade its climbing belts, gloves and boots to meet industry standards.

On the trade show floor, the vendors offered a variety of safety equipment from safety glasses to new linemen's boots to flame-retardant clothing. Allen Kiggins, manager for Xcel Energy, Denver, Colorado, U.S., said he was especially interested in the high-visibility garments. Since he manages the electric troublemen who work 24/7 shifts, he was looking for some warm and visible coats or shirts that they don't have to take on and off like the vests they currently wear in the field.

“The expo provides the newest technology, which the crews often don't get to see,” said Kiggins, who has been to the rodeo and expo 10 times. “Many times, the managers bring back products for the linemen, but at this event, the crews can provide input.”

Jerry Levesque, department leader of the dispatching center at Arizona Public Service and chief judge in the safety area, agreed. He says it's rare for the field workforce to be able to see the latest tools before their managers and supervisors.

For example, James Hunter, an apprentice from Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative in Seguin, Texas, U.S., discovered rubber gloves that featured enhanced quality and comfort on the trade show floor. Like other attendees, he also had his eyes open for new types of fall-restraint systems.

Focus on Safety at the Rodeo

In addition to browsing the trade show floor at the Overland Park Convention Center, Hunter also competed in the rodeo. Apprentices must complete a written exam, do a CPR and First Aid test, and then participate in the pole climb on one of the many 40-foot wood poles set up at the Agricultural Hall of Fame grounds for the event. By standing on the sidelines and watching his competitors, Hunter learned how to climb quickly without losing his footing or violating safety rules. For example, as he climbed up the pole, he tried not to step in cracks or knots. On his way down, he concentrated on not shattering the raw egg that he had to hold in his mouth.

For many years, the ILRA has integrated the raw egg into the pole climb competition to show the contestants that safety is number one at the rodeo, Childers said.

“Safety is more important than speed,” he said. “You may be the fastest kid on the block, but you can't cut corners at the rodeo. Otherwise, you will have points deducted.”

Another way that the ILRA is focusing on the importance of safety is through its First Aid and CPR competition. At any point in time during their careers, apprentices and journeymen need to be able to perform CPR, said Winston Moore, crew leader for Centerpoint Energy in Houston, Texas. In his 38 years with the company, he said it was his first time to the rodeo. In his view, the rodeo and expo were an invaluable way for these young workers to learn the importance of teamwork and communication.

“The apprentices get to learn the importance of not only the book work, but also how to be in good, friendly competition and make themselves better,” said Moore, whose company sent two journeymen teams and three apprentice teams to the rodeo.

Childers said the rodeo serves as a good training ground for the apprentices as well as the journeymen linemen. To keep competitors on their toes and prevent them from becoming complacent, the ILRA always features mystery events. The contestants can't practice for these events ahead of time because they don't know what they will be until they arrive on site.

For this year's event, the journeymen had to use a Hastings load pickup tool to simulate picking up a de-energized conductor. During the other mystery event, they used Chance line hoses and split blankets to cover the neutral and replace a dead-end bell with a Lug-All hoist. The competitors also participated in the hurtman rescue event, which was modified to simulate a real-world environment. Before performing the pole-top rescue, one of the team members had to pick up a radio, read a script and dispatch an emergency medical team.

Lira said the rodeo always reflects what linemen do for a living. The competition also fosters interaction between companies by lowering barriers between small and large utilities, co-ops, contractors and rural electric associations, he said.

“Everyone is watching the technology and talking, and I've seen work practices and tools improve remarkably because of the conversations that happen here,” he says. “Also, within companies, I think it has helped to promote a change in mindset. There's no longer the attitude that you have to do whatever it takes to do get the job done. Here at the rodeo, you have to do it safely.”

Editor's Note: To see more photos of the International Lineman's Rodeo and Expo, please visit the Electric Utility Operations Facebook page.