Having Witnessed or experienced an on-the-job accident, whether a near miss or a fatality, forces linemen to move the issue of safety from their heads to their hearts. The following are the stories of three linemen — Steve Bleifus of Entergy Arkansas, Jim Handley of Southern Company and Steven Crone of Dominion Power — and how their attitudes toward safety were shaped by their experiences.
Near Electrocution Changes Mindset
Steve Bleifus has worked for Entergy Arkansas for the past 18 years, first as a lineman and now as a safety specialist. An accident changed his outlook on life. He has since decided to devote his career to improving the safety of his workplace.
As a young serviceman working in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Bleifus got a call to work a storm. He was dispatched to a lights-out call, where only one customer was without power. He found one switch open on a three-phase system with a conductor that had broken off from the open switch. He was in a hurry to get the customer's lights back on, so he went up in his bucket planning to reattach the jumper. He was confident that the line was dead and didn't put on his rubber gloves, a poor assumption on his part.
“I was young and thought I was bulletproof,” Bleifus says. “I was alone in the bucket when I made contact with the energized conductor. Fortunately for me, the bucket was set at an angle and that kept me from falling out of the bucket and to the ground. My knees buckled, and I just dropped inside the bucket. Even at that point, I didn't realize what had happened. I managed to stay conscious and was able to lower myself back down to the ground. My fellow workers came to my rescue.”
Bleifus was rushed to the emergency room, where they treated one small entry wound and exit wound on his hands. The current went in one hand and out the other, and the doctors told Bleifus it should have killed him. He stayed in the hospital for several days.
While he was unaware of the three-phase delta bank, he says he didn't follow the proper procedures. After the accident, he received disciplinary action and a few days off. His manager told him that he wasn't doing it to punish him, because he had already learned his lesson. He also told him that he hoped it would serve as a lesson to the next person who thought about not following proper procedures.
A few days at home provided Bleifus with the opportunity to reflect on his poor attitude toward his work. The accident shook his confidence, and he was nervous and ashamed when he went back to work. In time, Bleifus managed to get over the event, having learned a lot about the importance of safety that day.
Even after he restored his confidence, his family was still suffering. “I'm not sure to this day that my wife is over it,” says Bleifus. “She heard what the doctor said about me being lucky to be alive, and I know she worries every day I go to work.”
The accident changed his view of what a good lineman should be. He now preaches safety to all the other linemen. Looking back, Bleifus wishes the accident never happened. “In fact, I'm embarrassed by it,” he says. “I try to help others through my mistake. It's one reason I decided to become an Entergy safety specialist.”
Eye of the Storm
The near electrocution put Bleifus's focus on safety. Years later, two hurricanes came along to reinforce his commitment to safety. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had a devastating impact on the Gulf Coast. Bringing power back was critical to restoring a semblance of sanity to those affected. Battling to bring the grid back after the horrific damage inflicted left an indelible safety footprint on Bleifus, as well as the entire Entergy field workforce.
Bringing back the system proved to be the most difficult work the Entergy linemen had ever faced. They endured a grinding schedule and unfavorable conditions.
Entergy crews paid careful attention to safety, because the linemen were working away from home and out of their comfort zone. “Because we were working in a different environment, we could take nothing for granted,” recalls Bleifus. “You check, double check, even triple check. You point out the obvious. You talk about hazards.”
Every morning, crews had briefings about what they might face during the day, with each day's assignments well thought out. “We all looked out for each other,” he says. “We all wanted to get back home safely to our families.
“What we learned about safety and work practices under extremely challenging conditions in responding to Katrina and Rita is making us a better company.”
How Safety Guidelines Came Into Being
Jim “Bubba” Handley put in a good 43 years in transmission at Southern Company (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.) before retiring. Because Handley came into the business of line work when many of the safety rules were first being established, he has a firsthand perspective of how things used to be. When Handley was coming up, there were no national safety guidelines and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn't even exist.
Handley acknowledges that safety rules are hard to establish and even harder to follow, especially when crews are used to doing things a certain way. “What made following safety procedures easier for me was that I was there when the guidelines were written,” states Handley, “We carried a lot of the procedures around in our head. Everyone knew the proper way to do things, and we passed it on to the apprentices as they came on.”
Handley has seen more than a few close calls and accidents in his years as a lineman. When an accident occurred, the company would bring in all the workers, sit them down and ask them what they needed to do to prevent it from happening again. Management would review the incident and, when necessary, establish procedures that everyone was expected to follow.
Handley is proud to have worked at what he considers an extremely safety-conscious company He takes pride in the fact that many of the procedures developed through these reviews have been integrated into the safety guidelines followed by Georgia Power (Atlanta) today. These practices were shared with other utilities, and some became standards for the industry.
“I guess because I have seen firsthand where some of the rules came from, I became a believer in following them,” Handley explains. “In some cases, I can go to the company safety manual and point to rules that came about because of a close call or an accident that I remember happening.”
Footprint in the Steel
Handley was in transmission line work for most of his career. He has learned that regardless of whether you're in transmission, distribution or network underground work, safety rules are there for a reason. He learned the importance of safety when an accident had a lingering effect on him and his crew. A young man working at a substation outside Albany, Georgia, took at a jolt and was knocked off the steel channel on which he was standing.
Handley was working outside the substation at the time when he heard a pop and saw the 22-year-old man fall 30 ft (9 m) to the ground. The lineman had made contact with an open 46-kV switch.
“We rushed over to see how bad off he was,” Handley recalls. “There wasn't a hair left on his head, and most of his clothes had been burned off. He was trying to get up, so we restrained him until an ambulance came. The winding stem on his watch was blown off, and the clock was frozen at the time that he came in contact with the 46,000 V. In my mind, I can still see the footprint made in that 4-inch-wide steel channel where his foot made the phase to ground connection.”
Unfortunately, the doctors couldn't save him; he died the next day. “The saddest part of that story was when his little boy, maybe three or four years old, saw me and asked where his daddy was,” says Handley. “That was rough.”
It turns out the young lineman had been working on the de-energized side of a circuit before going to lunch. When he came back, instead of staying on that side, he got over on the energized side.
Each time Georgia Power has a safety incident, the employees and management talk it over and put checks and balances in place to help prevent it from happening again. In this case, Georgia Power and other utilities have implemented and enforce a comprehensive lockout/tagout best practice, to help prevent such accidents. The line worker has 100% responsibility for locking out the incoming and outgoing power source, installing grounding clamps and testing the line to ensure that it is de-energized. The lineman never assumes that another worker previously working in the same area (for example, the lineman working on the other section in the morning) has done the tagout/lockout.
Handley has come to know that when something goes wrong, it can happen so quickly “you won't have time to spit.” Following the rules and proper procedures keeps linemen safe and makes this profession so highly respected. “Line work is as dangerous a profession as there is, but the rules have kept linemen safe and out of harm's way,” Handley acknowledges.
Witnessing that tragic accident gave Handley an even greater respect for following procedures. Furthermore, he dedicated the second half of his 40-plus-year career to training transmission crews and specializing in barehand training.
Line work is Like no other Profession
Early experiences can make or break a lineman. Not all linemen have good first experiences. That was the case for Steven Crone. When he started at Dominion Power (Fairfax, Virginia, U.S.) 25 years ago, Crone was assigned to work with a lineman with whom no one else wanted to work. “When [that lineman] walked in the gate in the morning, he was miserable, and when he left in the evening, he was even more miserable,” Crone says. “His mission in life seemed to be to make everyone around him just as unhappy as he was. When he was at work, he did his job and he did not take shortcuts, but he complained about everything.”
Crone began to question whether or not he wanted to make line work his career. He worried that he might end up being down on life, too.
Fortunately, Crone's fate changed when he was sent through Lineman's Boot Camp. His foreman, a 20-year veteran, loved the life of a lineman. His mission in life was to pass on what he had learned to young journeyman apprentices. The foreman was always looking for opportunities to teach line-working skills with great attention to detail, and he always stressed the consequences of not following procedures.
“He had detailed tailboard meetings prior to every job, where he taught us how to think a job through before starting,” Crone remembers. “He never won any awards and didn't want any. His satisfaction was in helping bring up a future generation of good linemen.”
This foreman knew more about rigging than anyone at the shop. “He coached me to not fall into the same trap of doing work the hard way,” states Crone. “He was always working smarter, not harder, finding easier ways to do the work while saving your back and protecting your hands. But what I really remember about him was his passion for being a lineman, which showed by the way he communicated to fellow linemen and apprentices. He explained each step and procedure before starting a job, and each job went smoothly.”
Crone knows that supervisors and crew leaders have the most influence on new apprentices. They typically spend more time together than they do with their own families. If apprentice linemen have a coach with sloppy safety habits, poor job-planning skills or even a lack of job knowledge, these traits could easily be passed on to the new recruits.
Crone learned early on that purpose and dedication to safety are not something you teach. They are habits you model. Just being a good lineman isn't enough.
“I stayed in this business and wouldn't trade it for anything in the world because of that one foreman who invested his time and energy in me,” says Crone. “We desperately need this type of coaching in our industry today.”