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Thirty Years of Personal Perspective

Not long ago I ran into an old acquaintance I had not spoken to in more than 25 years. We shook hands and wondered aloud at where the last couple decades had gone. As we were reminiscing, my friend eventually asked what I do for a living. I told him that I’m currently a division maintenance manager for Western Area Power Administration. I also mentioned that, before becoming a manager, I had spent a good portion of my career as an IBEW electric utility distribution and transmission journeyman lineman and foreman.

“Wow,” my friend commented. “Being a lineman must have been really dangerous.”

“No, not really,” I responded. “Line work can be hazardous, but it’s only dangerous if linemen don’t adhere to safe work practices and safety rules, and don’t wear their personal protective equipment when required. Furthermore, linemen who don’t comply with these requirements and ensure they take precedence over immediate job production can certainly turn a hazardous job into a dangerous one.”

My friend nodded and replied, “Well, you would know better than I would.”

Later that same day, I thought about the dialogue that had taken place between us. Upon further reflection about my career experiences as a lineman, I had to admit I did not always know better or truly understand the differences between a hazardous situation and a dangerous one. In fact, for many years I believed line work was dangerous. As a groundman and apprentice lineman, the majority of job duties were new to me, so I had to rely on and trust the linemen and foremen I worked with to educate me and to help keep me safe. As a result, I remained very focused and paid attention to everything I was taught or told during those formative years.

Unfortunately, after I transitioned from apprentice to journeyman lineman, my mindset and some work behaviors subtly and inappropriately changed. For several years I felt like I could do no wrong. I became confident, cocky and comfortable. Immediate job production sometimes was more important to me than taking just a few extra minutes to safely perform a routine job. On occasion I developed a conceited concept of my abilities. Fortunately for me, I had a workplace experience that got my attention and forced me to realize I had become complacent while performing routine work. It was then that I recognized I needed an attitude and behavior adjustment.

The Power of Repetition
A short time after that attention-getting experience, I sought the counsel of a senior lineman who was both a friend and mentor to me. I had the utmost respect for this individual and trusted he would provide me with timely advice. As I shared my recent workplace experience with him, he asked if I recalled the times I worked with him when he repetitively encouraged me to be a trade professional who performs all duties in a safe manner.

“Of course I do,” I replied.

He then asked me, “Why does a mother have to remind a child to do something 100 times?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Because,” he told me, “99 times is never good enough. Repetition promotes knowledge, skill and ability refinement. Through refinement comes wisdom. So again, I encourage you to be a professional and perform all your duties in a safe manner.”

To drive home his point, he repeated an Anthony Douglas Williams quote he often used: “Knowledge comes from learning. Wisdom comes from living.”

As I sat there and thought about what he had said, I realized my attitude and behaviors were based on my own personal choices and habitual tendencies – no one else’s. It was then that I came to understand I needed to address any complacent workplace behaviors I had developed or I might otherwise become a statistic. Moreover, I understood I needed to adjust these behaviors because my co-workers, wife and children were counting on me to be a professional.

Lessons Learned
Today, linemen often deal with one or more occupational hazards while engaged in routine work. Gloving, live-line hot-stick work, operating and driving heavy equipment, working at heights, working in inclement weather and working in traffic zones – to name just a few – all have inherent hazards. Our industry has come a long way from the early days when one in three linemen were killed while performing their duties. Back then line work really was dangerous. Through their blood, sacrifice and on-the-job experiences, these early linemen taught us to establish safety rules and assign responsibilities that provide guidance and direction so today’s linemen can perform their daily work free from incidents and injury.

If they were around today, I believe these early linemen would tell us good pre-job planning is an essential task and – along with the tailboard – is a key to preventing injuries and accidents. Pre-job planning and tailboards that incorporate hazard recognition, discussion and mitigation provide us with the means to create and ensure safe working environments. As I stated earlier, linemen who allow immediate job production to take precedence over wearing required PPE and adhering to safe work practices will almost certainly turn what can be a hazardous job into a dangerous one. Trust me – I learned the hard way.

About the Author: Will Schnyer, CUSP, is a division maintenance manager for the Rocky Mountain Region of Western Area Power Administration, a power marketing agency within the U.S. Department of Energy. He has 30 years of experience working in the electric distribution and transmission field.

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