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Train the Trainer 101: Live-Line Tool Maintenance Program

Around 2009, a hot-line crew working in the Southwest had a transmission phase suspended under a hot stick while replacing a suspension string. The observer on the ground was the first to spot it. The crew was warned and looked up to see their rated hot stick smoking, all the more urgent because at the time they had no safe place to land the phase. The day was freezing and windy, not uncommon for that part of the Southwest. The wind was picking up dust and then mixing with sleet. The sleet started to adhere to the stick, creating a path to the steel crane line. Thinking quickly, the crew knocked the ice off the stick, lowering the chance of flashover. They also took that stick out of service.

The crew did nothing wrong unless you count the fact that they did not anticipate dust and sleet mixing to create a mud that would coat the stick. In my experience, the sleet would have slid off the surface if not for the mud. The crew did inspect and wipe the stick before use.

I have become concerned over the years as I have seen more and more hot sticks laying on the backs of trucks in transit. I have also observed crews taking sticks from bins and sending them up for live-line contact without the required inspection and wipe. I am sometimes concerned that as an industry performing lots of gloving work, we might have lost our regard for hot-stick maintenance. Perhaps it’s associated with less and less use of sticks, or perhaps it’s a lapse in training. This is called normalization of risk. It is really an awareness issue – the danger of long periods without emphasis and incident is that we tend to get lax in good procedures or best practices. It might also be, as I have come to learn, that there are many utilities that have a person who takes care of their sticks, but don’t have a hot-stick maintenance program. I know there are lots of conscientious tool room people with good stick maintenance practices and programs out there, but this is a good time to review what the rules are and what a good hot-stick maintenance program looks like.

Maintenance Program Basics
Every utility and contractor should have a hot-stick maintenance program in accordance with 29 CFR 1910.269(j), “Live-line tools.” Live-line tools or hot sticks are fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP), either hollow or filled with a closed-cell foam to keep out moisture and dust. Some sticks are solid FRP. Others, like shotguns, cutters or jumper holders, are a combination of a foam-filled main stick with solid FRP actuator rods. Live-line tools are designed to withstand 100,000 volts per foot of electrical stress and are in-service tested at 75,000 volts. Live-line tools also include wood tools designed for hot-line work. More information about electrical testing can be found later on in this article.

An effective hot-stick program does not need to be a lengthy written document; in fact, most programs are only one or two pages. A program should include at least the following elements:
• Care and maintenance procedures including policies on transport and storage.
• Pre-use inspection and rejection criteria.
• Field maintenance, conditioning and cleaning practices.
• Qualified inspection and labeling procedures.
• A procedure for the required two-year inspection of sticks.
• In-shop storage, inspection and maintenance procedures.
• Policies and procedures for removal and return to service.
• Hot-stick maintenance program training for all affected personnel. This is the element missing in most programs, which may make it futile to have a program.

Testing of Sticks
Manufacturers test stick components according to ASTM F855, “Standard Specifications for Temporary Protective Grounds to Be Used on De-energized Electric Power Lines and Equipment.” As far as we are aware, manufacturers test each stick they send out their doors and affix a sticker indicating the test was performed. The OSHA design criteria for sticks found in 1910.269(j)(1) requires them to be able to pass a test of 100,000 volts performed for five minutes (ASTM F711). That is a design criteria for the manufacturer. If in-service testing is performed by the employer, that test is covered under 1910.269(j)(2)(iii)(E)(1) at 75,000 volts for one minute for FRP and 50,000 volts for one minute for wood tools. The rule is followed with this exception: “Other tests that the employer can demonstrate are equivalent” (1910.269(j)(2)(iii)(E)(3)). Equivalent tests would cover testing using portable stick testers like those marketed by A.B. Chance (by M.W. Bevins Co.) and Hastings (by Mitchell Instrument Co.). Those units test using extrapolated performance from a lower voltage to determine integrity of the stick, equivalent to testing at 75,000 volts per foot. In this case, the portable tester does not use 75,000 volts per foot, but lab testing has shown that the portable testers, used as directed by a qualified person, perform the equivalent test as specified by the standard. The employer should understand that if they use portable stick testers, they should have documentation on hand demonstrating that the test they use meets the requirement.

When the Employer Must Test Sticks
The employer is required to perform stick inspections every two years. Many companies do routine testing of sticks annually or during the two-year interval inspection. Some authorities express concern that high-voltage testing of sticks too often can electrically stress sticks, resulting in early retirement. That argument can be read in its entirety in the preamble to 1910.269. Sticks can be removed from the field and shop inspected, but there is no requirement that the stick be removed from the field for the two-year interval inspection. In practical terms, if sticks are inspected and wiped at each use, it is rare that a two-year inspection would identify sticks that are rejected. In the two-year cycle, the sticks must be thoroughly inspected by a qualified person, cleaned and waxed. If the stick needs repair or refinishing, or if there is any reason to suspect the stick’s electrical integrity, it must be removed from service, repaired and electrically tested before being returned to service. The full OSHA rules for inspection and testing are covered in 1910.269(j)(2)(iii)(C) through (j)(2)(iii)(E)(3). OSHA also refers the employer to the consensus guidelines of IEEE 978, “IEEE Guide for In-Service Maintenance and Electrical Testing of Live-Line Tools. “

Defective Conditions
When inspecting hot sticks, there are numerous types of defects to watch for, including:
• Knicks, cuts or abrasions that penetrate the exterior finish.
• Dull or flaking finish, or light areas in the finish that indicate impact stress.
• Stains that cannot be removed with a treated stick wipe.
• Damaged, loose or cracked end fittings, burrs in operating screws or loose parts.
• Flaking of finish or epoxy at end fittings.
• Damage to operating rods or operating rod end fittings.
• Nonstandard screws or bolts used in fitting attachments, and elongated or loose rivets.

Pre-Use Inspection
Hot sticks must be inspected and wiped before each use. This is an integral part of any stick maintenance program. Wiping with dry, clean towels is good, but wiping with silicone-impregnated cloths manufactured for stick cleaning and wiping is a great method of maintaining the integrity of the gloss finish.

Why Sticks Fail
Fiberglass or FRP sticks may feel smooth, but they actually have microscopic channels and pits in the surface that can harbor conductive contaminants. Wax fills those pits, preventing contaminant buildup. Wiping with silicone helps to both dislodge contaminants and maintain the wax gloss that is important to the surface integrity of the stick.

Moisture can intrude into sticks, even foam-filled sticks, especially after exposure to storm work. Moisture meters for fiberglass are hard to find on the market, but, when used by a trained and experienced person, can help identify moisture-contaminated sticks so that they can be properly dried, tested and returned to service.

Internal contamination can build up quickly and is not easy to prevent in collapsible hollow sections of switch sticks. Users should pay particular attention to the foam-filled end section as this is the real electrical integrity of collapsible switch sticks. Hollow sections get rubbed and impregnated with dust and transfer that contamination to the outside of the collapsible sections. Since it is not easy to wipe internal components, users should be trained to ensure those hollow sections stay clear of energized lines.

About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn has devoted the last 15 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is director of safety for Atkinson Power. He can be reached at

Editor’s Note: “Train the Trainer 101” is a regular feature designed to assist trainers by making complex technical issues deliverable in a nontechnical format. If you have comments about this article or a topic idea for a future issue, please contact Kate Wade at


Safety Management

Jim Vaughn, CUSP

After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 24 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He can be reached at