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What’s Missing in Your Training?

Author’s note to readers: Be careful not to judge this article before you finish reading it. Even some members of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board were concerned the wrong message might be sent. I don’t think so. We have a great history of training and a lot of good trainers in the college-operated programs, the for-profit training centers, the apprentice yards and on the job. But there are issues with some of our training as evidenced by what we see on social media. We must start the conversation to honestly confront these issues, and maybe that begins here. You are invited to let me know what you think.

I have recently been critical of what I have labeled “TikTok linemen.” The criticism was based on what I was seeing on social media. More and more, I had been noticing TikTok videos of young linemen working while shooting cellphone video of things they thought were cool. The problem was that while I expected these proud young linemen to be showing the world what it looks like from our offices 50 feet off the ground, what they were actually demonstrating was how to work unsafely – and that is not an understatement.

For a year or so, I ignored what I was seeing. I am no stranger to those few cowboy linemen pushing back on observations about sketchy work practices and unsafe work, and I didn’t need anyone to add any negativity to my life. Instead, I started making photo snips of the poor and often illegal practices I was seeing. I figured I would use them in my own consulting and training as examples of how much further we need to go in our safety culture.

Then, in the winter storm season of 2022, I caught a glimpse of a lineman at work restoring power in the Northeast. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A local television news crew, ignorant of our industry safety standards, got a really cool shot of a lineman in a snowy scene. The lineman was in a bucket at the top of a three-phase pole trying to get what looked like 0.568 or 0.795 conductors back on top of the double insulators whose conductor ties had twisted off. The bucket’s material-handling jib was extended from below the phase, and the lineman was trying to push the phase up to get it back on top of the double insulators. Unfortunately, he was either out of extension or boom lift. Then it happened: He unsnapped from his fall protection, pulled himself up to the bucket lip, and stepped out onto the double arm to try to get the leverage needed to lift the phase. These actions were picked up by the news crew and appeared as a couple-second clip of a worker restoring power under difficult conditions. With a little research, I found the local news station and the whole video clip. I snipped a photo and posted it on my Facebook feed.

The people who see my Facebook feed know who I am and what I do, and they are pretty sympathetic with my overwhelming desire to protect my brothers and sisters out on the wire through good safety practices and training. But I wasn’t the only one with the technical skills to grab such a photo. In the next few days, I noticed more photos popping up on social media that looked quite similar to the photo I had snipped. The difference was that I was seeing what were supposed to be lineworkers essentially praising the get-r-done attitude of that young man and others like him.

I now have a collection of about 30 photos snipped from the web. I didn’t snip every erroneous thing I saw. I only snipped activities that – and please read this next part carefully – reflected work practices that have killed or injured lineworkers in the many fatal investigations and court cases I have consulted on in the last 20 years. And because I have nothing to lose, I began commenting on the bad work practices I saw on the web. Not surprisingly, I got pushback, and some of it was pretty harsh. Then I realized that these TikTok linemen may be doing us a favor. If they are posting a photo of a material-handling jib being used to set a 40-foot pole with a caption that reads, “Sometimes you just have to find a way to get the job done,” they must think the practice is OK. But what’s worse is that dozens of commenters, also purporting to be lineworkers, applauded the resourcefulness of the workers.

How Did We Get Here?
So, the question is, how did we get to the point where lineworkers, thinking they are right, post photos and videos of unsafe acts or procedures? Further, how is it OK for lineworkers to push back, criticizing the good intentions of a commenter who is simply trying to keep a brother or sister lineworker from hurting or killing themselves or someone else?

Well, there’s a pretty simple answer to both questions: training. If we see a photo of a line school in which the 20 trainees are doing something really improper with an aerial device, or if we see 20 trainees on wood poles and 10 of them are obviously improperly adjusted so they can race in their fall protection, is it the trainee who shot and posted the photo who is at fault? If we see a trainee hopping a hook ladder across a crossarm to reach the suspended 69 kV on the end of the arm, is it the trainee who’s at fault? Obviously not. It’s the two or three trainers among those 20 future lineworkers who are the issue. But the likelihood is that those trainers are not really the problem. It’s the leadership that commissioned them as trainers who have the responsibility to solve this problem.

Some years ago, I was doing an audit for a state agency. Two students in the college lineworker program I was auditing had suffered serious injuries the previous year. The college had four trainers, all of whom were former linemen; the youngest had more than 20 years of experience. The college also had a well-developed curriculum for the training that included OSHA standards and proven practices derived right from “The Lineman’s and Cableman’s Handbook.” The problem was that the curriculum material was barely used because the trainers were relying on their own decades of experience.

When the Utility Safety & Ops Leadership Network’s Certified Utility Safety Professional program was well underway, an analysis of the exam performance was performed to evaluate efficacy of the testing methodology. One very clear finding was that candidates from the same companies who took the CUSP exam missed all the same questions. No, they weren’t cheating. The candidates might have taken the test weeks or months apart, but they still missed the same questions. What we discovered was that some companies with long histories had been passing down erroneous information, and the result was common mistakes within the employer’s workplace.

A Continuum of Safety
Let’s consider the lineman who has a hot phase clipped into his material-handling jib. The lineman doesn’t know that testing and analysis of jib wear and tear and contaminant exposure create undependable electrical isolation across the jib. For that reason, the manufacturer does not rate the jib as electrically insulating. The manufacturer requires an insulating jib extension – tested like a hot-stick and protected from damage when not in use – to be attached for hot work. The lineman doesn’t know this because whoever taught him didn’t know, and that’s because they never researched their training material and never read the manufacturer’s operating instructions or the ANSI A92.2 standard regarding vehicle-mounted elevating and rotating aerial devices. The lineman mentors 30 apprentices in his journeyman career and then goes on to a retirement job at a community college, where he improperly instructs 70 more trainees who will someday mentor their own apprentices. Unless these trainees come across a good program, they may never get it right. And yes, this example using a material-handling jib is true, and the jibs are still misused today. I know this because I trained on the Asplundh line-lift material-handling bucket truck, the first to use a material-handling jib. We were instructed by the manufacturer, and they told us the jib was fiberglass. It would probably insulate, but it was not designed or rated for insulating hot work; there was an insulating extension for that. And then there was that investigation I did in 2020 of a jib-related flash and fire incident.

But this isn’t about improperly used material-handling jibs. This is about the employer and their training. Our industry relies on a continuum of safety that begins with research and development of everything from hammers to tensioners and tuggers. Almost all the work methods we employ have been reviewed and researched by scores of industry professionals who spend months and sometimes years debating their pros and cons. They enshrine their findings in the consensus standards, which are the best practices that help to ensure the safety of workers. OSHA’s industry standards are the work of utilities and contractors that vetted the agency’s ideas for a safer workplace, and many of the OSHA standards are based on the decades-old reliability of the consensus standards that were already in place before OSHA existed. This continuum – from concept through development, testing and application in the field – is designed to get it right. If we, as employers and trainers, don’t use that underlying information to develop and apply our training, we will never get it right.

This article is about the employer’s responsibility to train and how we can improve both training and safety. It’s not an easy task, but all of our training has to be backed up by research and reflect the industry standards’ best practices. There are hundreds of consensus standards, but there are about 30 that every safety professional and trainer should have read. This is also about making classroom and written materials detailed enough that readers understand there are reasons for the rules we follow and the methods we use. This is about the quality of on-the-job training and the value and importance of recognizing the underlying principles and standards that make our work safe. And this is about training trainers no matter how many exceptional years they have had as journeymen. We do a disservice to the industry and its trainers if we do not impart to them the information that they need to effectively train the next generation of lineworkers.

In closing, I want to thank the TikTok linemen for so clearly bringing this issue to light. We are going to fix it. Now put that phone away and get back to work – with both hands.

About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 27 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


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