The sizzling summertime heat means only one thing for linemen nationwide: It's rodeo time. Linemen across the country are competing in regional rodeos and gearing up for the 27th Annual International Lineman's Rodeo and Expo, which will be Oct. 14-16, 2010, in Kansas City, Kansas, U.S.

Before they load the tools in their trucks and travel to Bonner Springs, Kansas, for the competition, they will most likely face the dilemma of having to compete with fall protection instead of free-climbing.

Some electric utilities are mandating that their linemen use 100% fall protection, not only out in the field but also at the rodeo. Up to this point, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not made 100% fall protection a requirement for utility companies. As a result, the International Linemen's Rodeo Association (ILRA) has experienced pushback from linemen who are concerned that it is no longer a level playing field.

Transmission & Distribution World asked two of leaders in the rodeo — Dale Warman, ILRA board chairman, and Danny Bost, mystery event chief judge and a lead/craft trainer for Progress Energy's Linemen Training Center — to shed some light on this controversial issue.

Q: What are some of the biggest issues utility linemen face in 2010?

A: Danny Bost: I think the biggest issue involves the down economy. Utilities are not replacing their workforces in an effort to save money and to survive. It is requiring linemen to do much more with less. Some are working longer hours because there are less people to do the work.

Dale Warman: I agree with Danny that the economy has dictated that utilities do more with less. In most cases, it's not a case of displacing linemen as much as not starting new apprentice classes. Utilities want their linemen to work as safely as possible and have the highest degree of job skills. That is where I think the Lineman's Rodeo plays a big part. Linemen know that to compete in the rodeo, they have to work safely and follow safety rules. For that reason, they often work on their own time to improve the skills needed to do the job and increase awareness of safety practices.

Q: How big a topic is fall protection?

A: Bost: I think fall protection is a big issue for linemen. Because of the large numbers of injuries over the years, and the severity of those injuries that go along with free-climbing, utilities across the country are looking at ways to eliminate falls. The biggest pushback is from the linemen themselves. As long as linemen have been around, they have free-climbed poles. They don't climb as much as they used to because of bucket trucks, but there is still a lot of climbing that takes place to maintain the electrical system. Linemen feel threatened in their trade if they are told they can no longer free-climb poles. Everyone thinks they are not going to fall, and it is always going to be someone else who has an accident. If you really think about it, this is a huge culture change, and we all know how hard it is to change culture.

Warman: Fall protection is also becoming and will continue to become a practice in our industry. Anything new takes time for people to accept. I remember when we first began “gloving primary,” I heard linemen say, “That will never happen where I work.” Now it's a national practice.

Utilities, like people, embrace change slowly but all believe in having safe work practices. I think all will follow the direction towards some type of fall protection. Utilities want to be proactive and not have the government to mandate rules. They would much rather they have the opportunity to act on their own.

Q: Are we seeing utilities address uniformly or are utilities on their own?

A: Bost: So far, utilities have been making this transition on their own. There is a cost associated with making this transition. Utilities have figured out that a severe injury can cost enough to put all their employees in some type of fall arrest. Some are making the change because it is the right thing to do, while some are waiting and watching to see where the industry goes. Most companies that have made the change did so because they had that severe accident that pushed them over the edge. That injury that was severe enough to make them realize it is time to do something. When that occurs, it is also easier to sell the concept of going to a fall-arrest system to their workforce.

The real message here is not to wait until you have that serious injury that will affect linemen for the rest of their lives. Instead, you should do the right thing.

Warman: One of the biggest challenges that has always faced the Lineman's Rodeo is the various work practices of the utilities who attend. Nothing is more apparent than when we went overseas. We saw linemen from other countries compete in events that were as different as day and night from what we did back home. Yet all of us enjoyed the rodeo and went home with new ideas on how they perform work in their country. We also gained some insight into their work practices.

Q: Since you work with the International Lineman's Rodeo Association, do you see a lot of different practices?

A: Bost: In 2009, with the teams that participated, about half were still free-climbing, while the other half were in some type of fall arrest. Some utilities are going the route of using fall arrest that will keep their employees from free-falling or sliding down the pole. Others are just going to the double safety technique that will keep them from free-falling, but they can still slide down the pole if they were to cut out.

Q: Will you be adding an event that addresses fall protection?

A: Bost: Not at this time. The ILRA has seen about 50% of the participating utilities go to some type of fall arrest in just the last four years. With the numbers that are making the change currently, that number will certainly grow to the level that competition will take care of itself.

Q: How are individual fall- protection requirements impacting rodeo participants?

A: Bost: All of the participants that have gone to fall-arrest equipment will tell you that it slows your climbing considerably. Some feel that as long as there are free-climbers competing, the fall-arrest participants don't have a chance to win. I think that gap is closing somewhat. Progress Energy has been in fall arrest for four-plus years. During those four years, they have continued to compete in the International Lineman's Rodeo.

In 2009, Progress Energy took first and second place in the apprentice competition overall; fourth and fifth in the senior division; fourth and fifth in the journeyman IOU division; with one of those teams finishing four seconds out of fifth place overall in the journeyman competition. My point is that the longer these guys climb under fall arrest, the better they get.

Warman: At a recent meeting, a Kansas City Power & Light lineman who attended a rodeo in Washington said his team performed well, even though they were required to use fall protection.

Q: Do you have any changes for rodeo practices going forward?

A: Bost: The selection of the events for the rodeo is certainly the single most important thing that can help the fall-arrest participants and the “free-climbers” compete on a level playing field. Going forward, the ILRA has committed to do everything it can to make the events “fall-arrest friendly” while keeping with the standards of the International Rodeo and its long and successful history of promoting safe working lineworkers and their trade.

Companies mentioned:

Kansas City Power & Light

Progress Energy