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Photo: Access Energy Cooperative

You are there: a (careful) day in the life of a lineworker

BY PAUL WESSLUND

Larry’s typical day as a local electric cooperative lineworker actually started the night before. He was getting ready for bed when a woman reported her power was out. It was Larry’s weekly overnight to be on call, so the co-op truck was already in his driveway. He drove it to the woman’s house, identified a problem in the base of the meter and installed a temporary fix until an electrician could make a permanent repair the next day. 

“I like hunting down problems,” said Larry. “I know I’m doing something the members can’t do themselves. They depend on us.”

Larry’s like a lot of electric utility lineworkers, according to John Dvorak, director of safety and loss control for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.

“There are more people who can’t do this work than can do it,” said Dvorak. “It takes specific skills and intestinal fortitude. They’re a ‘get it done’ type of personality.”

Larry isn’t like a lot of lineworkers – he is a lot of lineworkers. In fact, he’s actually not a real person, but a combination of the real people I interviewed for this story about a typical day for a lineworker.

The tools and the rules keep lineworkers safe

What I discovered during my day at the co-op was a group of people who carefully and deliberately follow the rules of an elaborate system that lets the rest of us make magic by flipping a switch.

“This isn’t a video game,” said Dvorak. “You can’t just push a button and have that pole set itself or remove that transformer. You’ve got to work with nuts and bolts and poles and wire.”

Larry started his day in a room with the rest of the lineworkers, leafing through stacks of paper – checklists, maps and work orders – planning the day’s work. They compared notes, asked who was familiar with the area they were headed to and analyzed last night’s college ball game.

In addition to taking time to coordinate the plans and paperwork, these guys – there are a few women among the more than 15,000 co-op lineworkers around the country – need to keep track of a lot of equipment. Neatly organized shelves in the warehouse hold saws, drills, climbing hooks, insulated work poles, trash cans and binoculars. The lineworkers need to wear safety gear or have it close at hand – including hard hats, safety glasses, fire-retardant uniforms, steel-toed shoes, regular work gloves and hot-line safety gloves.

One more delay kept the crews from driving off to their first jobs, and it was probably the most important reason of all: the co-op’s weekly safety meeting.

The co-op’s safety coordinator opened the meeting. She said that while catastrophic contact with electric current is always a top concern, today’s meeting would focus on avoiding “slips, trips and falls that can cause very big issues.” A safety specialist from the statewide electric cooperative association told the group that he disagreed with the widespread notion that a lineworker’s job is dangerous.

“It’s hazardous and unforgiving, he said, “but it doesn’t have to be dangerous if you follow the right procedures. We have the tools, the rules and the knowledge that can keep it from being dangerous.”

They look out for each other

The meeting ended, and as the crews left to organize their truck convoys, I saw something that struck me as amazing in how simple it was. As I followed Larry along the equipment warehouse loading dock, he passed around the back of another lineworker, touched that lineworker’s shoulder, and said, “I’m coming around behind you, and Paul’s right behind me.”

Just to make sure I wasn’t making too big a deal out of that small incident, I told that story to Corey Parr, vice president of safety and loss prevention with the company that insures most of the electric co-ops, Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange.

“You couldn’t come up with a better example of someone focused on a culture of looking out for yourself and others,” said Parr. “That awareness and accountability is the culture we want to drive toward.”

Parr said that tap on the shoulder also reveals an important myth about the danger of line work. Accidents don’t have to be part of line work, as long as correct procedures are followed.

And maybe those safety rules are working. From 2006 to 2015, co-op lineworkers reported 53 injuries from falls, including falling off poles. In 2016, that number was zero.

By mid-morning, the convoy was ready. Three lineworkers drove three trucks: a service truck, a bucket truck pulling a trailer with a large spool of wire and a digger truck with a huge auger on top pulling a trailer with a backhoe. They headed across the county for the day’s job – moving a ground-mounted transformer 500 feet up a hill, closer to an underground connection for a new barn.

“It’s going to be muddy out there after the rain we’ve had,” said Larry. “When you’re working on underground connections, mud is not your friend.”

We neared the site by late morning. To avoid interrupting the field work, the team stopped for an early lunch at a truck-stop McDonald’s. Over burgers, I asked Larry about his training and his typical day.

“We don’t say, ‘Hurry up’!”

“There’s nothing routine,” he said. A work plan might get changed because someone crashed a car into a utility pole. Tomorrow he would be presenting a safety demonstration to a group of elementary school students. He told about the satisfaction of traveling out of state to help repair hurricane damage at a co-op’s service territory in the south.

When the caravan arrived at the work site, the trucks drove up the packed, crushed-rock driveway, avoiding the soft ground on either side.

The three lineworkers gathered near the front of one of the trucks for what a lot of co-ops call a “tailgate meeting” – and this co-op calls a “job briefing.” They read through forms, noting the address, cross street, job and account number. All three men signed the form.

Then they broke their huddle and de-energized the lines they’d be working on, calling to let the office know the power had been cut. The next step was using the backhoe to dig around the new connection pipes sticking out of the ground, making room for a ground-mounted transformer. 

When the backhoe finished digging around the new transformer location, it drove down to the old transformer site. The crew unhooked the electric connections, chained the transformer to the backhoe’s loader bucket and got ready to start up the hill. But to keep the backhoe from getting stuck in the mud on the trip up the hill, the trucks first had to be backed down the driveway to clear the way.

Two of the crew pulled new wire underground, then cut and spliced the 2-inch diameter wires into the transformer box. They secured the connections before cleaning up the work site.

On the return trip, the convoy visited the truck stop to top off the vehicles’ gas tanks. Back at the co-op, they checked the paperwork for the next day’s jobs – then stocked the trucks with the equipment they’d need for an early start.

Before we said goodbye, I noted that everything the crew did that day seemed to take a long time.

“We don’t think, ‘this is taking a long time,’ ” he said. “We just think, ‘this is how you do it.’ We don’t say, ‘hurry up.’ We look out for each other.” 

Paul Wesslund writes on co-op issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the service arm of the nation’s 900-plus electric cooperatives.

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