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Gearing Up

Evolution of safety equipment for electric linemen

Modern bucket trucks rumbled into the electric utility industry starting in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that McCulloch Electric Cooperative in Brady saw its first such vehicle.

Danny Williams, manager of the Loss Control Program at Texas Electric Cooperatives, was a young McCulloch groundman back then.

“We might have been one of the last co-ops in the state to get a bucket truck,” he recalls. “Everything we did was off the wood.”

Delayed adoption of such industry advancements was not unique to McCulloch. Common use of key safety- and productivity-enhancing equipment such as rubber gloves, grounding and hard hats often took decades. Experts say many factors were at play. Humid southern summers discouraged rubber sleeves. Difficulty climbing up and over pole structures made safety harnesses hard to sell. In many cases, training was limited.

In the industry’s infancy, about 1 in 3 linemen—called “boomers” back then—died on the job, according to Alan Drew, senior vice president for research and development at Northwest Lineman College, which has a campus in Denton.

With better equipment and training, the industry’s safety record dramatically improved. In 2017, there were 26 fatalities among electrical power line installers and repairers, a fatality rate of 18.7 per 100,000 employees, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As the head of safety and lineworker training for Texas cooperatives, Williams oversees nearly 60 schools for 100 co-ops, municipal utilities and contractors. “You can have all the equipment in the world, but if they’re not trained to operate it and operate it safely, you’re back to square one.”

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer and editor at National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.