As any lineman will tell you, climbing a pole is a unique skill. It's hard to explain the way it feels the first time you try to climb using hooks (gaffs). In my 38-plus years, I have seen only about half of the apprentices take to it easily. Some never do. Even more challenging, once you learn to climb, are the skills that are needed to do the actual work on a pole. It's an art that many continue to polish on the job and at rodeos such as the Kansas City International Lineman's Rodeo, to which Burbank Water and Power (Burbank, California) sends a group every year.
I started out as a lineman helper with the City of Burbank almost four decades ago. Back then, there wasn't a formal process to learn how to climb poles. Prospective linemen had to practice on their own time at a storage yard that had poles specifically for that purpose.
Later, when it became clear that a better process was needed, the City of Burbank developed a training program that included a pole-climbing training yard. Beneath these training poles was a big pit filled with a couple feet of sawdust to help soften the impact in the event of a fall. New trainees were taught to bear hug the pole as their first response when they cut out. Trainees often got a few splinters, but at least the sawdust helped to break their falls.
About 15 years ago in a training class, I had a young apprentice fall clear of the pole and break his pelvis. At that time, I was the electrical distribution supervisor. Later that day, I had to meet his family and very distraught wife, not to mention the young employee who had potentially permanent injuries.
It was then that I vowed to never have to meet another employee's spouse or loved one in the hospital because of a training fall. I sought out equipment, now referred to as “sky hooks,” manufactured by LifeHook (Columbus, Ohio). This fall arrestor system, a self-retracting lifeline hanging from the top of the pole, is attached to a harness worn by the new climbers. It stops you almost immediately, usually within a few inches, leaving you dangling from the tether attached to the pole. For this reason, some linemen call it a “yo-yo.” This is how the City of Burbank and hundreds of other climbing schools protect new apprentices as they develop the skill of pole climbing.
Not only do these fall arrest systems protect the new climber, they also reduce the fear of falling, which dramatically accelerates the learning curve for apprentices who have never been up a pole before. The fall arrest system allows trainees to concentrate on learning climbing skills and proper pole-climbing techniques. They are also able to listen more closely to the instructor, picking up tips that he or she will need to know and use in the field.
On The Job
There is a lot of discussion about new fall-protection standards being developed for the industry. Some utilities have even gone to a more fully harnessed fall-protection policy. Providing fall protection in the field is a balance between safety and real-world conditions. In reality, there are too many obstacles on poles to be harnessed up 100% of the time. The City of Burbank has gone to more and more bucket trucks, which helps to mitigate fall protection most of the time. Working from a bucket is safer and greatly reduces the need to climb. However, there are still backyard and inaccessible poles where a bucket truck isn't usable. That's why there is a mandatory requirement to be able to climb poles safely.
Several years ago, OSHA mandated linemen wear a full-body harness while working from the bucket. This has been the only major change I have seen in fall protection. It all starts with the climbing school where our instructors are very strict about passing the course. Our instructors are critical yet supportive in the beginning stages. Only when they see the level of confidence and skill mastered is an apprentice certified to climb. In my opinion that's the best fall protection.
And I am proud to say that I have not seen a single debilitating injury in an apprentice class since climbing schools started using fall-protection equipment.
Chuck Herron is manager of electric distribution for Burbank Water and Power, City of Burbank, California. firstname.lastname@example.org