When electrification first came to homes — which was well before our rural areas received electricity — linemen reported for work with nothing more than their bare hands, a homemade tool belt, a pair of climbing spikes, a digging spoon to dig holes by hand, and an ordinary hat. Linemen learned the basic principles of working with electricity and the hazards there of, in real time.
No safety standards existed at the time, and the “equipment” that separated linemen from high voltages were sometimes crude DIY creations. There were no safety harnesses unless the linemen opted to use their belts to wrap around their waist and the utility pole they were climbing. Most of the time they climbed freestyle. Calling this a dangerous profession back then was an understatement. One in three linemen — called “boomers” back in the day — died on the job.
Insulating rubber equipment including gloves, line hoses and blankets, were not introduced until 1915, and it was about this same time linemen belts and safety straps became somewhat standardized. However, homemade devices were still relied upon including hotsticks meant to protect the workers from electric shock when working on live lines. Even the transition from Stetson-style felt hats to hard hats did not take place until after 1925 and even then, not all workers had access to them or cared to use them.
It would be another decade before apprentice programs were introduced, teaching formalized safety rules and procedures to protect linemen. Bucket trucks with their fiberglass booms significantly changed the safety landscape for linemen beginning in the 1950s. They not only provided insulation from accidental contact with a live wire but they also reduced the chances of falls from utility poles.
Fast forward to the present where safety means innovation. No more homemade tool belts or hand-fashioned hotsticks. Everything from arc-rated, flame-resistant clothing to standardized tools and equipment are now required. A tailgate talk happens before work begins on a job site to address safe work practices. And we use the term lineworkers in response to the increasing number of women joining the trade.
What hasn’t changed since the beginning of electrification, is the dedication and industrious nature of our lineworkers. These professionals answer the call day or night, no matter the weather conditions, to keep power flowing. Their work is physically and mentally taxing. They miss holidays and family gatherings. And although we’ve come along way to keep them safe, their profession is inherently dangerous.
For all those reasons, this month we honor the efforts of the lineworkers who serve our communities 24/7 year-round.
Lee Tafanelli is Chief Executive Officer of Kansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc. in Topeka.