Bobby Christmas stared at the bandage covering the bloody, jagged gash on the apprentice’s leg. “Son,” Christmas began, knowing the answer to his question before he even asked it, “did you have your lineman’s boots on?”
“No, sir,” the young man said, dropping his head in embarrassment as Christmas, chairman of the board of directors for the Texas Lineman’s Rodeo Association (TLRA), listened to the explanation. The apprentice, who was competing in his first rodeo, had not expected to do much event pole climbing. Then, when pressed into action, he wore the only boots he brought: his short, pull-on work boots that covered only part of his calves beneath his jeans. On his way up the pole, he lost his balance and gouged his calf with one of his gaffs—the razor-sharp, spur-like spikes that electric linemen strap on their boots for climbing.
The apprentice was lucky: After a trip to the emergency room for a few stitches, he was back at work on Monday, two days after the accident occurred at the 2010 Texas Lineman’s Rodeo near Seguin. Two older linemen were fortunate as well after succumbing to heat exhaustion during a climbing event on the sweltering July day. They were taken to a local hospital, received fluids intravenously and returned to work Monday.
Electric linemen are a can-do breed, says Christmas, who launched a management career at Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative in 1981 as a groundman on a line crew. Tell ’em what you need, give ’em a few minutes to figure it out, and they’ll get the job done, safely and efficiently.
But in a high-voltage industry in which it should be assumed that the electricity’s always on, linemen can never afford to be mentally, emotionally or physically off. As the bumper stickers on HILCO Electric Cooperatives’ work trucks read: “If It’s NOT Grounded It’s NOT Dead!”
Safety comes first, says Danny Williams, who oversees lineman safety and training programs as the Loss Control manager for Texas Electric Cooperatives (TEC), the statewide association that represents the interests of 64 electric distribution co-ops and 33 municipalities and contractors in its Loss Control program.
“A lot of these young guys don’t think about death a lot,” Williams says. “But in this business, one mistake can cost you your life.”
In the 1940s, when the first electrical lines were strung across Texas, training and safety were as foreign concepts as the current flowing to people’s homes. “They didn’t know what electricity was,” the 67-year-old Williams says of those pioneer linemen.
Injuries and fatalities were all too common in those early days, Williams, says, adding that even by the 1960s and ’70s, when he was well into an electrical lineman career, training received short shrift. But over the past quarter-century, safety and training have become top priorities in the electrical power industry, with TEC and organizations such as the TLRA, which has overseen the 15-year-old Texas Lineman’s Rodeo since 2005, leading the way.
The annual rodeo provides a superb training and proving ground for linemen. And on a much larger scale, Williams reports dramatic success from TEC’s Loss Control curriculum, whose schedule this year features 900 safety meetings and 35 weeklong training schools around the state.
Based on yearly injury incident reports from electric co-ops, municipalities and contractors—most of whom have enrolled employees in TEC’s lineman training programs at one time or another—lost-time injuries (those resulting in time off work) have plummeted by two-thirds statewide since the inception of the Loss Control curriculum in 2000.
Most significantly, Williams notes, safety training is helping prevent electrical-contact and flash-burn injuries that can kill or cripple linemen. An electrical arc, for example, can reach a temperature of several thousand degrees Fahrenheit that burns flesh off the bone. The human body, Williams explains, is an excellent conductor of electrical current that destroys blood vessels as it generates heat. Consequently, some survivors of electrical shock require amputations.
So here’s some really good news: Based on reports submitted to TEC, electrical contact ranks fifth behind falls, strains and sprains, back injuries and being struck by objects as causes of lost-time injuries over the past decade.
“Our job is to save lives,” Williams says. “That’s what we do every day.”
Doing so is a matter of training and educating line workers, says Williams, who joined TEC’s new Loss Control department in 2000. Before that, he worked 16 years as a training specialist for the Texas Engineering Extension Service. The College Station-based organization is one of the nation’s largest work-force safety and training providers.
Williams estimates that 99 percent of the accidents and injuries reported to TEC are caused by safety rule violations. Accordingly, Loss Control officials will build or modify training programs based on the information received in injury incident reports.
The 2011 training schools’ lineup features these courses: transformer, troubleshooting underground cable and equipment, underground installation, basic and advanced pole climbing, metering, hotline (overhead line construction), regulator, recloser and capacitor, and troubleshooting.
Classes provide a snapshot of smooth and wrinkled faces, with apprentices sometimes sitting next to line foremen. Some older linemen, Williams says, are overcoming their pride to see the truth: They’re benefiting from safety training just as much as the younger guys are.
Williams, stressing that safety and training are top priorities for most electric utility organizations today, touts TEC as having “the finest safety and training program in the nation.” And TEC, he says, will ensure that members and consumers always have the most up-to-date information available.
Safety first, Williams says, is a mantra worth repeating: “Our job is to save lives and reduce accidents.”
Camille Wheeler, associate editor