Modern bucket trucks rumbled into the electric utility industry starting in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that McCullough Electric Cooperative in Brady, Texas, saw its first such vehicle.
Danny Williams, now the manager of loss control at Texas Electric Cooperatives (statewide) in Austin, was a young McCullough Electric groundman back then.
“We might have been one of the last co-ops in the state to get a bucket truck,” he recalls. “Everything we did was off the wood.”
Delayed adoption of such industry advancements is not unique to McCullough Electric. Common use of key safety- and productivity-enhancing equipment like rubber gloves, grounding, and hard hats, often took decades.
Experts say many factors were at play. Humid southern summers discouraged rubber sleeves. Difficulty climbing up and over pole structures made harnesses hard to sell.
“Probably a lot of why they didn’t embrace it is because they weren’t trained,” says Don Harbuck, senior vice president of customer success at Northwest Lineman College. “Think about it. I’m out there, and I’ve been working, putting poles in the ground and stringing wire for 10, 15 years, and I still got all my fingers and toes. Then somebody comes along and says, ‘Wait a minute now. We can’t do that the way we used to. We have to do it this way.’ Yet nobody’s trained them in why we have to go to the new method.”
Dwight Miller, director of safety and loss control at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives (statewide/G&T) in Columbus, says “safety really was and still is an evolution. As principles and equipment were introduced and developed, you might see one utility adopt [them], but another 15 or 20 years pass before becoming widely used in the industry.”
Take fall protection equipment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) now requires employees working at heights of more than 4 feet on a pole, tower, or similar structure to wear a body belt or body harness system that attaches to a pole.
But 100 years before the OSHA ruling, someone thought high-climbing linemen needed extra protection. While writing The American Lineman, an exhaustively researched look at the history of linework in the United States, Alan Drew discovered a patent drawing showing the same fall-restraint concept.
“We could not confirm they were ever produced, but it shows that they were thinking about mitigating pole falls way back in 1914,” Drew says.
As daily demands and common voltages grew in the electric industry, job site dangers did as well. In the industry’s infancy, employers expected workers to take risks. As a result, about one in three linemen—called “boomers” back then—died on the job, Drew notes. But companies eventually came around and “began creating safety rules and work procedures that began to save lives.”
The creation of OSHA in 1971 had a big impact. But, as co-op safety experts point out, so did access to training, with a proliferation of lineman schools and programs.
As the head of training for Texas cooperatives, Williams oversees 52 training schools for 100 co-ops, municipal utilities, and contractors. “You can have all the equipment in the world, but if they’re not trained to operate it and operate it safely, you’re back to square one.”
Photo Gallery | Safety Gear Through the Years
Electrification BeginsIn the early years, linemen learn basic principles and hazards in realtime. Safety standards are non-existent, and most line equipment is handmade.
It's not uncommon for linemen to wear hats made of felt or leather for protection.
Workers dig holes by hand with digging bars, spoons, and shovels.
Linemen rarely wear gloves for protection, opting instead to work bare-handed.
Linemen fashion belts to wrap around waist and pole--or they climb freestlye.
Homemade climbers lack pads and have only upper and lower straps.
Safety rules and formalized training become available, but they're limited. During this period, linemen de-energize lines to restore power, but as demand grows, line-line work becomes more common.
Safer rubber gloves are introduced around 1915 along with other rubberized equipment, such as line hoses and blankets.
Linemen belts and safety straps are more standardized, adjustable, and attach to D-rings. Leather tool bags store and carry climbing and work tools.
Homemade hot sticks
Linemen make their own hot sticks and shelter them with varnish to keep moisture out.
Safety training improves
The electric industry develops more formalized safety rules and procedures to protect lineworkers. In the late 1930s, apprentice programs with stricter standards also begin.
The transition to hard hats comes later in this period. Until then, most linemen elect to wear soft, Stetson-style hats.
A-frame digger trucks evolve into hydraulic digger trucks with auger, resulting in safer, more efficient work.
The first shotgun sticks come into use and allow linemen to perform more tasks without climbing.
New heights and faster communication
Fiberglass sticks evolve to "rubber gloving," with more formalized rules and training. The advent of the bucket truck, utility undergrounding, and improved communications are major steps.
Rubber glove protectors
Linemen wear two pairs of gloves--leather on top of rubber--for more protection.
Insulated buckets on trucks with fall protection come into use.
New applications of radio technologies improve communications during emergencies and storm restoration.
New law of the land
President Nixon signs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) law. Underground line installation gains widespread use. Material-handling bucket trucks and hydraulic and mechanical compression tools also improve work conditions.
Head protection made from thermoplastics gains widespread use.
Rubber sleeve improvements
New sleeves extend to the shoulders for extra protection.
Telescoping or extendo stick
Made of fiberglass, the extendo stick lets workers perform tasks like opening and closing switches or removing tree limbs while staying on or near the ground.
Watching out for workers
OSHA begins requiring utilities to provide lineworker clothing to protect from arc flashes and "fall protection" devices like body harnesses and fall-arrest lanyards.
Insulated hard hats
Linemen now wear hard hats insulated with a special polyethylene that protects against blows to the head.
Linemen aren't climbing as much, so body harnesses and lanyards are valuable backup support.
Arc-rated clothing is written into OSHA-required Personal Protective Equipment.
Lightweight mechanical crimpers mean no more squeezing connectors by hand.
Mobile devices help lineworkers troubleshoot problems using SCADA and meter data instead of climbing a pole or going up in a bucket.
Many thanks to Northwest Lineman College Senior VP Alan Drew, author of The American Lineman, and NRECA’s Bud Branham and Robert Harris for their extensive assistance in the completion of this article and illustrations.