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Voice of Experience: Why Do Accidents Keep Happening?

2018 is turning out to be a devastating year in our industry. The frequency of energized contacts, flashes, severe injuries and fatalities continues to increase. Why – in a professional trade that requires such an extensive amount of apprenticeship time – do lineworkers have such high incident and accident rates?

In this installment of “Voice of Experience,” I want to review two accidents I am familiar with so that we can dive into why they happened, and how you can prevent them from happening on your job sites.

The First Accident
In the first accident, a journeyman lineman lost his right arm to the shoulder. The immediate cause was a 7.2-kV electrical contact phase to ground.

The day of the accident, the journeyman was running a little late, so he drove his personal vehicle to the job site to avoid losing more time. An apprentice lineman had driven a bucket truck to the job site for the journeyman to use. All employees gathered to discuss the job plan. The job, which had been in progress for several days, was reconductoring approximately 5,000 feet of an existing three-phase 12.4-kV line from #2 ACSR to 397 MCM. New poles were set, and old conductors were spread on layout arms. The new conductors had been pulled in and sagged to tension the day before. The day the accident occurred, there was discussion during the job briefing about moving the new conductors from roller blocks and tying them in on the new insulators with preform ties. The structure where the incident occurred was a 45-foot Class 3 with a 10-foot wood arm. Insulated layout arms were mounted on the ends of arms. The middle and field-side phases were set to the field side of the arm. The existing energized road-side phase was on a short arm set to the road side of the pole. All three of the old phases were still energized. The new conductors had system safety grounds installed on each end, as required by standards.

There were three bucket trucks being used this particular day. As previously mentioned, an apprentice had taken one of the trucks from the job briefing location to the assigned pole to set up and prepare for the late-arriving lineman. The other crew members were scattered along the nearly mile-long pull when the late-arriving lineman showed up at the job site. He parked his personal vehicle across from his bucket truck and immediately got into the bucket. The apprentice asked if he needed anything, and he said, “No, not on this pole.” It was a straight line, no angle or down strain. The existing energized circuits were not covered. The lineman positioned his bucket under the new road-side phase with the energized road-side phase behind him. With the new phase on the lip of the bucket, he proceeded to lift the phase with his bucket toward the insulator where he would tie it in. He steadied the grounded phase conductor on the lip of the bucket with his right hand. As he moved the bucket backward, he turned slightly to his right and contacted the energized road-side phase with his shoulder. He suffered a phase-to-ground contact from his right shoulder to his right hand. It was determined that a failure to use PPE and a failure to install properly rated cover equipment were major contributing factors.

As you read through this description, you probably also noticed other errors and failures in judgment that resulted in the severe injury. If we noticed them, why didn’t the lineman?

The Second Accident
The second accident resulted in a fatality. A major contractor was assigned to add a third phase to an existing two-phase line to balance load. The project covered more than one mile of the two-phase line, on wood cross-arm construction. The existing phases were on pin-mounted insulators at each end of the arm. The plan was to move one of the phase conductors to the pole-top pin position and then frame out a roller block on the open end of the arm to pull in the new phase. The existing two primary phase conductors would remain energized.

Several days into the project, the crew found a set of double wood arms and a double dead-end. The arms needed to be replaced due to their rotten condition. The crew was not able to get a bucket truck to the pole line, which was located at the rear property of a house in a very rural area. The general foreman made the decision to climb the pole and change out the arms – energized. The voltage was 12.4 kV. Three crew members were present, two linemen and one apprentice. The general foreman assigned the junior lineman – who had less than a year of experience as a journeyman – to change the two bad arms alone, with the other two crew members on the ground to assist.

The junior lineman ascended the pole. While attempting to rig a nylon ratchet hoist to the phase without a strain link, he made contact with the phase with his back. Contact with the 7.2-kV conductor while standing on the pole was fatal to the junior lineman. The crew performed pole rescue, but by the time they got the victim to the ground to perform CPR, he was unresponsive.

The immediate cause of the accident – the junior lineman’s contact with energized primary while standing on a pole – prompted many questions from accident investigators and OSHA. Inadequate cover-up and the inexperience of the employee were contributing factors to the accident. In addition, the failure to select the more experienced employee to do the work was considered. My first question at the time was, why didn’t the crew either get the equipment needed to safely perform the task energized or schedule an outage, de-energize and ground?

The same types of accidents continue to happen every year, and the industry keeps expecting a different outcome. The truth as I see it is that the fundamental rules of the trade are broken. Some of the reasons are referenced in this article; others simply can’t be explained. Employees and management blame a focus on productivity, the lack of experience of some workers and bad decision-making by accident victims. But the real question is, why can’t some of the smartest and most talented craftspeople in the world figure out how to make our industry safer?

You can make a difference. Use your skills and knowledge to perform an effective hazard analysis with all of the crew present before you start your job. Identify the risks and plan ways to protect yourself from them. Cover up, isolate or insulate. De-energize where you can, and then use equipotential bonding at your work areas or work them as if they are hot. This is the best job in the world – don’t mess it up.

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.