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Voice of Experience: What Do New Employees Need to Know?

As I’ve recently traveled around the U.S. speaking to different utilities, contractors and municipals, I’ve found that attrition is greatly affecting the workforce. And as more and more workers retire, the industry will need to hire new workers to fill those vacated roles – new workers who will need the appropriate training to safely and effectively perform their jobs.

I’ve written about the value of training in the past, specifically about how the quality of training and performance management has a direct effect on the safety of employees and the productive abilities of the workforce. In this installment of “Voice of Experience,” I want to take the opportunity to review some of the basic skills a lineworker should possess in order to help ensure quality construction for the employer and decrease safety issues for everyone working in field.

Specific and Structured
The training provided in today’s utility industry is much more specific and structured compared to the days before the OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269 standard was published in the 1990s. Prior to that, there was an “anything goes” approach to on-the-job training, which was the primary method of delivering training to new employees. For example, when I was a new helper on a line crew several decades ago, one of the linemen put me in a bucket so I could get a feel for working on energized primaries. I gloved 7.2 kV the first time, when I had only been at my company for a few months. I was far from the only one this happened to. The crew would put new employees to the test to see if those employees had what it took to glove energized conductors. If you were the least bit hesitant, they would encourage you to go to the meter shop or find work in another department. Today, of course, all of this is against utility rules and violates OSHA regulations.

Being part of a structured lineworker development program is the best training new employees can currently receive. Of course, training won’t do anyone any good if employees don’t adhere to their training at all times. Forbes magazine recently stated that a line technician’s job is one of the most dangerous in the world; I humbly disagree. Rather, I believe that a line technician’s job is one of the most hazardous in the world – it only becomes dangerous when the line technician fails to follow their training.

Lineworker training begins at a basic level. Trainees must learn to climb a pole, paying special attention to proper knee positioning and hand-foot coordination. They must learn to correctly position line trucks and buckets on the job site (here’s a tip: don’t put the turntable of the bucket directly under a service or communication drop). Traffic control setup is another part of basic training for new lineworkers; mastery of this must be acquired to ensure the safety of both the crew and the driving public.

Training on those lessons is soon followed by training on ropes and knot-tying. New lineworkers must learn how to make up a handline or a set of jack straps/rope blocks. It only takes a short time to grasp the proper way to roll up a handline and rope blocks for storage.

There are a few other items new lineworkers must learn about if they want to earn any credibility with crew members. These include the ability to read a job print and select the right equipment; perform on-site job planning; and prepare materials in a timely manner for crew members to install, without being told to do so.

Regarding that last item – preparing materials without being told to do so – I see many new employees today who wait to be told to perform simple tasks. From my perspective, oftentimes it is better to be motivated and incur some correction from others than it is to be unmotivated or too afraid to do something. Trainees shouldn’t get too far ahead of the crew, and they shouldn’t engage in tasks they aren’t qualified to perform, but ideally they will show a willingness to try until they get it right. It will take time, experience and understanding to get the crew to work as a team; however, a crew that is eventually able to work together smoothly, safely and efficiently is a beautiful thing.

Spec Books and Basic Electricity
New lineworkers must read and study spec books to learn the basic configurations of construction. The information will become second nature after some experience, but new workers must learn that a 40-foot-pole hole should be at least 6 feet deep, and that pole-top pins and arms have a specific location on the pole. The installation and banking of transformers are simple tasks once trainees understand the principle of banking to provide the correct voltage. The polarity of the transformer will determine the location of H1 and X1 bushings. And yes, you can bank transformers of different polarities with correct connections at high-side bushings.

Another imperative for new trainees is to gain a solid understanding of basic electricity so they can understand generation. By the way, the rotation of the generator is CBA – not ABC. Phasing a bank to a customer’s equipment is important. I can remember changing out a suspension pole and restoring a three-phase service. Power was restored and the lights were on, but the up button in an elevator made the elevator go down. There was an airplane turn on a vertical suspension pole; the spec we used at the time was B phase to top and inside of angle to bottom. Things do change.

Rules, Regulations and Observation
All trainees should be taught to follow the National Electrical Safety Code and equipment manufacturers’ directions for installation and maintenance, as well as applicable OSHA regulations. OSHA’s rules tell us what to do but not how to do it, while industry standards give us direction on how to proceed – learn them.

Outside of rules and regulations, perhaps one of the most important parts of new lineworker training is watching energized work as it progresses. If a lineman is untying conductors or moving, splicing or tying in a conductor, a dedicated observer should watch every move he makes. After everything is secured and in normal operating condition, and the pole is set and the cover is in place, trainees should then prepare materials for the next phase of installation.

When new lineworkers can eventually work energized conductors, they are close to being promoted to journeymen. Once that happens, the newly promoted employees have only proven that they are trainable and have learned enough to start performing unsupervised journeyman work. But there is still much more to be learned, believe me.

I was told many things when I started in the utility industry over 50 years ago. One was that if you don’t get hurt every once in a while, you aren’t doing enough. That is clearly untrue. We can work safely and avoid injury if we follow our training and the rules that govern our industry. Trainees must understand their abilities; it is a mistake to overestimate them. The failure to recognize personal limitations has gotten many lineworkers into trouble and caused injuries and fatalities.

In closing, being employed as a lineworker or line technician is a great way to make a living. I have enjoyed all my years working in the industry. Just remember that while this is a predictable business, it also is an unforgiving one. Stick to your training and follow the rules.

About the Author: Danny Raines, CUSP, safety consultant, distribution and transmission, retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and opened Raines Utility Safety Solutions LLC, providing compliance training, risk assessments and safety observation programs. He also is an affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Center OSHA Outreach in Atlanta.

Voice of Experience

Danny Raines, CUSP

Danny Raines, CUSP, is an author, an OSHA-authorized trainer, and a transmission and distribution safety consultant who retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and now operates Raines Utility Safety Solutions LLC.