Arc flashes, electrical contacts, accidents with trucks or heavy equipment—these are the high-profile risks of our industry. But the smaller, everyday line work incidents are perilous too, and at New Hampshire Electric Cooperative in Plymouth, James Robison is trying doggedly to reduce the threats they pose.
For instance, the seemingly straightforward task of securing the tag end of a partially used spool of cable is almost always an accident waiting to happen, Robison says.
The reel wants to roll on its stand, and the bulky wire tries to unspool like a tightly coiled spring. Someone from the crew has to brace the reel while pulling the line taut and holding a two-inch staple in place against the edge of the reel, all with one hand. With the other, he has to land a solid hit with a good-sized hammer, anchoring the cable tight, ideally without smashing a thumb or letting the wire lash back in his face.
Robison, an operations supervisor at New Hampshire Electric, is a longtime lineman with nearly 30 years at the co-op. He’s used his expertise to invent a simple double clamp that quickly and easily secures the loose end of a cable against its spool without the use of sharp staples and swinging hammers. He’s got a patent pending on his invention, and he’s lined up a local manufacturer to help him produce the clamp as orders come in.
Robison started design work on the “M”-shaped clamp back in late 2010 after watching the hammer-and-staple procedure go wrong. “I saw an apprentice get struck right across the mouth,” he says. “It cut both lips wide open.”
The danger also exists when releasing the anchored cable, he adds. “I’ve seen the staple get wedged onto the cable, so when you pry it off that cable comes swinging at you. It can take an eye.”
Robison decided there had to be a better way.
“I looked in every catalog available, any utility tool sales book that we had on hand,” he recalls. “I asked around, and I called distributors directly. Unless something has been developed since I started, there’s nothing out there.”
But after he finished his invention, he encountered another, more stubborn obstacle: the familiar, sometimes maddening, tendency of linemen to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them.
“I realize now how set in their ways linemen are,” Robison says. “I’ve seen it when I’m going around demonstrating the clamp. I see salty old linemen and young new guys, and I say, ‘There’s no one here who will not have the problem that this is designed to prevent.’ But when it comes to a new tool, it’s really hard to get them to sign on to it, even if it’s a safety tool.”
Robison remembers demonstrating his device at a regional utility gathering in Massachusetts a few years ago. One of the speakers, the top safety official at a big Southern investor-owned utility, warned the gathering about concentrating on spectacular dangers while overlooking the small, daily occupational hazards of line work.
“He said that in this industry, we always focus on the big stuff, the electrocutions, the truck accidents,” Robison recalls. “He had the numbers on how many man-hours are lost each year for the small things, and it was incredible, millions of man-hours.”
Later, that speaker dropped by Robison’s demonstration stand.
“I’m standing there, talking to a group of linemen,” he says. “He picked up the clamp and looked it over for a while, and he said, ‘James, this is exactly what I’m talking about. This prevents the large accident, but it also prevents the smaller ones.’ He said, ‘If I can, I will have one of these on every truck.’”
Robison is 51 now, and he moved inside about two years ago. “It’s been a great move,” he says. “It was hard to leave the line crew, but my body appreciates it.”
He thought he’d be able to find a little more time to peddle his device after his promotion, but it hasn’t worked out that way. “You know how linemen’s schedules work: There is no schedule,” he says. “I thought by taking this supervisor’s position, I’d miraculously have more time available, but I don’t. Not that I’m complaining.”
While the co-op has not endorsed his invention or taken part in its marketing or manufacture, it has bought some of the clamps. As an operations supervisor, Robison says it’s hard to watch his own set-in-their-ways linemen bypass his clamp and grab a hammer or use another method.
But he knows it’s the little things that add up. And he’ll keep working at it.