On a day after heavy rain, getting the bucket truck out across sodden land is problematic. Tyres whirr in the mud and the air fills with the smell of diesel as the wheels refuse to grind across the field towards the electricity wires that need attention.There’s nothing else for it. A team of highly skilled National Grid linemen need to fix the fault to keep energy flowing, regardless of whether their vehicle can reach it or not.
International Lineman’s Rodeo and Expo, Kansas 2019
The engineers stare up at the grey sky to check whether the rain will start again, and then, confident the threatening clouds are drifting south, pull out their climbing boots. There’s only one way up that pole, and that’s to fix themselves in a secure harness, grab their tools, and hoist themselves up. As well as their belt, hooks and pliers, they make sure their pouches have everything they’ll need once they’re airborne: a skinning knife, a ruler and a screwdriver.
Being a lineman is a tough but crucial gig. When former lineman John Doherty started out as an apprentice aged 19, he realised that these guys were the ones with the capes. “I saw that these were the people running around during storms putting the lights on, and they’re making people happy. They’re our saviours during ice storms and other natural disasters, so I got some training sessions in and started there.”
John, who is now the manager of four linemen departments in Massachusetts, took several National Grid teams from New York and New England to compete in Kansas this year. Each year line men from around the world, compete in the Lineman’s Rodeo, which was founded in Kansas in 1984. The event attracts Linemen from around the world, and has grown to include over 200 teams and 300 apprentices. “It’s a really, exciting atmosphere,” says John. “It’s competitive for sure, but there’s lots of friendly conversation about who climbed the most poles in snow and stuff like that. We took a massive team this year that represented National Grid really well.”
But how does National Grid guarantee safety for its linemen? Tim Horan is the Group Director of Global Safety, Health and the Environment at National Grid. The safety of the linemen is paramount.
Tim adds: “These are individuals who work in our electric and transmission business. They’re hugely experienced in their trade and they’re in competition with peers to make the team. It’s not a walk in the park. For line men to work at the company, they must go through testing and training every year.”
The hours spent at the Rodeo pay dividends thousands of miles away.
“This really translates well back into our respective barns,” said Kevin Gates, a Rome, New York-based overhead line supervisor. “It’s a real relationship builder. What may have been good to begin with is now fantastic. The smooth, safe operation as a team – our guys take that back to the barn. They are really first-rate models for everyone they interact with.”
Tim explains that the goal is to safely learn how to climb a pole with their equipment with no truck support. “They must have a basic understanding of electricity in construction practices and be on top of and aware of a whole set of safety practices.”
In practice, climbing a pole is hard work, especially at the beginning. John explains the basic premise. “The main part of pole climbing is having a big belt and climbing boots [a little like crampons]. As you climb you stab the pole with your boots, but if you don’t climb them at the correct angle you can find yourself slipping down the pole.”
“You get a good sense of accomplishment,” said Stephen Moss, a line worker based out of Worcester, Massachusetts. “Just getting up the pole – it takes a lot of skill. But climbing is only half the part. Then you have to do the work.”
There are plenty of key safety practices that must be adhered when a group of linemen are standing in a field eyeing up a pole they need to climb up. Firstly, it’s imperative they sound test every pole before they attempt to climb to ensure it is safe to and have proper PPE protective equipment. Then they make sure they put on their hard hats, safety glasses, safety boots, fire retardant clothing, and special gloves that protects them from electrical currents.
“They must also be fit,” says Tim. “No matter what their age is, to climb a 40ft pole the linemen must be on top of their fitness.”
Are there any times when linemen are not permitted to scoot up a pole? The riskiest times are when there are high winds, says Tim. “If it’s blowing over 40mph, there’s no going up. If there’s extreme ice, then pole climbing is also not recommended.”
There are so many risks associated with being a lineman, Tim says. It goes without saying that the engineers are very high. Main risks include losing footing, being around live electricity, and falling. “This is why it’s so important to have such strict safety procedures in place.”