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Linemen adapt to fall-restraint system


A quick search on the Internet for linemen and climbing turns up story after story about accidents, injuries, and even loss of life. Working on energized, high-voltage power lines and climbing 35-foot distribution poles can be dangerous and deadly for linemen who do not follow the safety guidelines set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupation of lineman is among the most dangerous.


Capital Electric Cooperative employs 13 linemen who take safety very seriously. They attend 10 mandatory safety trainings every year, provided by the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives (NDAREC). Some of the training topics include pole-top and bucket-truck rescue, defensive driving, OSHA updates, substation safety, chainsaw safety and tree felling, hazard recognition (slips, trips and falls), field observations for site-specific training, and CPR and AED training. Linemen can also attend hotline school, in which they review and practice procedures that involve working on and around energized, high-voltage power lines. The annual school is hosted by NDAREC.


Climbing accidents are not common — but they do happen. A lineman used to climb using only “gaffs” or hooks that are attached to each foot. If one of the spikes hit a crack or knot in the pole, the lineman could lose his balance and “cut out.” A positioning belt might have prevented him from falling far, if it was adjusted correctly and fastened securely to the pole. Without a belt, injury was a certainty. In the past, linemen weren’t required to use a belt for climbing — only for working at the top of the pole.

They would free-climb using only their legs, hooks and hands. Once they reached the position they needed to string a new line or fix an outage, they would secure a single strap around the pole that was attached to their tool belt. This transferred the weight of the lineman from the outside of the pole to the inside, and allowed the lineman to work hands-free.


There was an art to using the strap. Jason Smith, safety instructor with NDAREC, said it was specifically made to be worn a certain way. If used incorrectly, a lineman could “burn the pole” and fall to the ground. This would likely result in the lineman getting splinters if he grabbed the pole and tried to stop himself from falling.


“Just about everyone who has climbed at some point or another has burned a pole,” Smith reveals. “It used to be that when a lineman went to line school, he learned that if he started falling, he was supposed to push away from the pole so he didn’t hit anything on the way down. But you get 30 feet up on a pole, the first thing you’re going to do is grab the pole and give it a bear hug. It’s human instinct. There’s no way to fight it.”


OSHA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, promotes the safety of all employees with its mission: To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance. OSHA has the task of monitoring and recording falls, which are the most common cause of serious work-related injuries and deaths.


In June 2014, OSHA changed its requirements to make climbing pole and steel towers safer for linemen, who are now required to wear a fall-restraint device that has an inner strap and outer strap. Any time they climb or work 4 feet or higher above ground, they are required to wear the restraint that would choke the pole in the event of a misstep. The equipment is designed to prevent a lineman from falling more than 2 feet.


Climbing with the new system feels a bit more arduous than free-climbing for Journeyman Lineman Seth Lothspeich, who has been with Capital Electric for 15 years. However, once he reaches the top of the pole and settles back to work, he agrees that he feels more comfortable — and ultimately safer.


“It’s more worker-friendly,” he says.


Steve Harrington, a journeyman lineman who worked for Cass County Electric Cooperative in Fargo and Kindred for 7 years before being hired by Capital Electric 30 years ago, says it’s been a tougher transition for him.


Smith says line schools including Bismarck State College are teaching climbing with the new fall restraint system, and that apprentice lineman seem to have an advantage because it’ the only way they have learned how to climb. For seasoned linemen like Harrington, climbing and positioning a belt around electrical infrastructure may feel awkward.


“It’s different. It seems harder. That will change over time with practice,” Smith says.


While linemen don’t have to climb poles often, thanks to bucket trucks with booms that lift a lineman to work in the air, there are times when a lineman must climb a pole. Rain and snow can make the ground too wet or muddy for a truck. Poles are also set among creeks, or hills and trees, and the terrain prevents the use of a bucket truck.


“By climbing rather than using a bucket truck, it doesn’t tear up a crop or somebody’s yard. It’s a courtesy for everyone,” Smith says. 


Linemen may also choose to climb rather than use a bucket truck, to maintain their skills in the event of an outage or emergency.


The days of free-climbing are over. As safety and standards evolve, so must the linemen who build and maintain your cooperative’s electrical system.


“This change has been hard but necessary, to protect our linemen while on the job,” concludes Rick Dressler, operations supervisor at Capital Electric. “Climbing with the new system, and adjusting belts as they go, might take our linemen a little more time and getting used to. But, accidents can happen anywhere. Thankfully a climbing accident hasn’t happened here. Since we started using the fall-arrest system, we can know without a doubt that our linemen will stay safe and return home to their families at night. That alone is worth the change.”


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