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Lineworkers and Line-Clearance Workers: Understanding Their Similarities and Differences

Everyone in the utility sector should familiarize themselves with the relationship between these two work groups.

With the launch of the Certified Utility Safety Professional program’s new utility line-clearance arborist endorsement (visit https://usoln.org/endorsements/ to learn more), I thought it would be useful to share with Incident Prevention’s readers some of the basic similarities and differences between lineworkers and their line-clearance cousins.

Line-clearance workers – also commonly referred to as line-clearance arborists – are tasked with clearing space around power generation, transmission, and distribution lines and equipment for the operating organization. They perform clearance work using various methods depending on the electrical asset being cleared, the clearance requirements and the condition of the vegetation.

Much like an electrical worker must be qualified to perform certain tasks, a line-clearance arborist must be qualified to work in proximity to electrical hazards. You may have an image in your head of Paul Bunyan felling trees with his mighty ax or the modern-day logger wielding their favorite brand of chainsaw. In certain situations, and in some parts of the world, these may be the primary means for line-clearance work. The vast majority of line-clearance workers, however, perform tree-trimming work while climbing trees or from an aerial lift.

Now, before any line-clearance arborist or lineworker writes to Incident Prevention because this article doesn’t address the scope of work you are primarily engaged in, know that this is an attempt to address the masses. More detailed and less frequent work scopes will have their place in future articles. For example, OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269 discusses line-clearance tree-trimming by qualified employees – referring to qualified lineworkers – who may perform line-clearance tasks with the use of rubber goods, insulated tools rather than nonconductive tools, and so forth.

Risk Exposure
Here’s another difference between these two types of workers: A line-clearance arborist’s risk exposure regarding the energized conductor can sometimes be more hazardous than that of a lineworker’s. Wait, what? How could a lineworker’s risks be less hazardous when they are working directly with – and focused on – the conductor or electrical apparatus, often while energized? To me, the answer is twofold. The first reason relates to the use of the word “focused” earlier in this paragraph. Lineworkers physically engage with the equipment related to the electrical conductor, whereas line-clearance workers are near the wires but focused primarily on the vegetation in proximity to the energized conductor. Because line-clearance workers are near the wires but focused on vegetation – not energized equipment – there may be a greater chance of them making an electrical contact.

The second reason a line-clearance worker may have a higher risk exposure than a lineworker is due to the positioning differences between the two types of work. When comparing the lineworker and the line-clearance arborist while using an aerial lift or climbing a pole or tree, in general, a lineworker is positioned in a safer, more favorable location. Again, I know this may seem counterintuitive, but bear with me for a moment. A lineworker is primarily working beneath or parallel to the electrical conductor in relation to the ground, and in most cases, they are positioned with their body facing the electrical hazard. On the other hand, a line-clearance worker is positioned next to or above the conductor. Their body positioning generally faces away from the electrical hazard.

The Role of Training
Knowledge is another aspect that impacts this article’s topic of focus. No one is born with a working knowledge of electrical systems or electrical safety. Therefore, a certain amount of training is needed. While training is a topic I have omitted up to this point, it plays a major role in how each worker approaches their work and their safety. Even basic familiarization training is important for an apprentice or a ground person so that they can begin a long, successful career working on or near electrical assets.

Regarding knowledge of electricity and electrical hazards, lineworkers quickly differentiate themselves from line-clearance workers. Typically, a line or telecommunications worker will undergo classroom-style training or even training through a formal school before entering the field, whereas many line-clearance workers are given a new-hire orientation with a wide range of durations, settings and styles depending on the culture of the organization they have joined.

Be aware that the ANSI Z133 consensus standard, which includes safety requirements related to arboricultural operations, states that employers “shall verify that each line-clearance Arborist is qualified to work within proximity to electrical hazards that the Arborist is exposed to.” It also states that a “qualified line-clearance Arborist shall be trained and competent in: (a) The skills and techniques necessary to distinguish exposed, energized parts from other parts of electric equipment; (b) The skills and techniques necessary to determine the nominal voltage of exposed energized parts; and (c) The Minimum Approach Distance (MAD) specified in Table 3 and the corresponding voltages to which the qualified line-clearance Arborist will be exposed and the skills and techniques necessary to maintain those distances, for the nominal voltage present.”

There is a lot of training required before an employer verifies a line-clearance arborist trainee is qualified to safely perform their duties around electricity. Initially, it may include the trainee participating in an electrical hazard awareness program (EHAP) or being fortunate to attend a live demonstration, whether at a facility or in the various EHAP trailers found throughout the industry. Their training is mostly the on-the-job variety, so placing seasoned, qualified team members with less experienced team members will help to facilitate learning and growth.

Conclusion
The similarities and differences between lineworkers and line-clearance arborists tasked with maintaining high-voltage electrical systems certainly go beyond those mentioned in this article. It is of great importance that everyone in the utility sector understand the relationship these two workforces share. More so than simply being paired up on disaster recovery or storm events, stories and lessons can be shared from both sides that can make a positive, lasting impact on our working culture.

About the Author: Philip Moran, CTSP, CUSP, serves as the safety director for Ironwood Heavy Highway LLC, an industry-leading company based in Rochester, New York, that provides civil construction, utility construction and environmental services. Reach him at pmoran@ironwoodhh.com.

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