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Confessions of a Complacent Lineman

If you have been working in the same role for a while, you know your job. People look up to you because you know what you’re doing. They count on you to get the job done the right way. You have confidence in what you do, too. But have you noticed yourself taking a few shortcuts lately, telling yourself, “I’ve done this work every day for years – I know what I’m doing”? If so, it may be time to rethink things. It’s exactly that kind of complacency that got me in trouble.

In early 2005, I was a lineman on a one-man service truck. I had been a journeyman for 20 years, so I was pretty comfortable with my skills. My main responsibilities were to catch all trouble, run temporary and permanent services, and work on streetlights. The district I worked in was very large; it took about 90 minutes to drive from one end to the other. One day, I had an order to tap up a service and set 10 meters on a condominium complex in Edisto Beach, South Carolina, which was at the far end of our service territory. The UG service was a parallel 300-MCM single-phase service. The line crew out of my base yard had been there the day before to run the service, make up the gang can and put the lugs on the transformer side of the service. Since there was no city approval when they ran the service, they did not heat it up. My job was to tap it up and set the meters. The approval had come in during the late afternoon the day before.

As soon as I pulled up to the job, I got a call from dispatch that we had a trouble call at the other end of our service area. There was no one else available, so I said I’d take the call as soon as I got the Edisto Beach order done.

The Incident
After I ended the phone call, I proceeded to open the UG transformer. The parallel service looked to be properly marked with colored tape. I then checked the meter can, which also looked OK. Since I was in a hurry and my friends from the crew did the marking, I decided not to ohm it out to check if all of the service conductors matched up in polarity.

The area was full of activity, with approximately 20 people finishing up construction on the condo buildings. I connected the service to the neutral spades. I then connected one of each side of the parallel service to the secondary spades, making sure the other end was isolated because it would also come hot as soon as its matching conductor was heated up. I then went to connect the other sides to the hot spades. As soon as the lug hit the spade, there was a huge flash and I fell backward. When I landed, I felt something burning my arm. I ripped off my rubber gloves to see a red-hot piece of metal down in one of my gloves, burning my arm. People were running over to me, asking if I was OK. I could smell hair burning. When I reached up to touch my mustache, it was almost gone. I couldn’t see out of my safety glasses, so I took them off – they were completely pitted up. I also took a look at my hard hat; it had been white, but the front was now black. I then came to the realization that the markings on the service had been wrong.

Soon an ambulance arrived. I had made it through with some minor burns to my face and a second-degree burn on my arm where the hot ember had fallen into my rubber gloves. The biggest thing hurt was my pride. Everybody on that job site had seen or heard what happened. I called my supervisor and relayed the incident to him; he pulled somebody off another job to send them to catch the other case of trouble. I told him I would finish the job I was doing before heading back to the barn.

I disconnected all of the conductors and ohm’d them out. As it turned out, the service had been incorrectly marked by the line crew who had installed it. I properly marked the conductors, made up the service and set all of the meters. I then headed back to the barn to confront the line crew.

I had a 40-minute drive back to think about what had happened. In my mind, it was the line crew’s fault – they had set me up and marked the cables wrong. When I saw the crew, they knew I was angry and told me it was an apprentice who had made a mistake with the markings. I beelined straight toward him. I was stopped by the crew foreman, who asked what I was doing. I replied that the apprentice had screwed up and that I’d gotten injured because of it. The foreman then asked me, “Spooner, did you ohm the wire out before you tapped it up to make sure everything was OK?” I told him that I had not, but it was still the apprentice’s fault. The foreman looked me right in the eye and said, “Hold on a minute, you are at fault just as much as he is. You didn’t double-check for yourself. He is just learning, and you know better.” The foreman’s words rang true; it was partially my fault. If I had followed the proper procedure, I would have caught the error. I was in a hurry to get to the trouble call, so I got lazy and made a shortcut. I was complacent. I walked away to calm down because I knew the foreman was right.

In our business, complacency can kill. I was lucky to only get small flash burns from a secondary as a result of my own act of complacency. The result would have been much worse if primary voltage had been involved. I hope you will learn from my mistake and follow all safety rules and work procedures as they are written. Most safety procedures were written in blood, and all of them exist for a reason. Today is a new day, so you still have a chance to change your ways. And if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your family and your fellow co-workers.

About the Author: David Spooner has worked in the utility industry since 1979, first as a lineman in South Carolina and now for a utility in Hawaii. His focus is keeping employees safe and helping them expand their leadership skills. He can be contacted via LinkedIn at

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