Utility Linemen: Putting Lives on the Line

Utility Linemen: Putting Lives on the Line

This piece was originally published in the May 2016 issue of ei, the magazine of the electroindustry. 

Julie Chavanne, Communications Director, Electrical Safety Foundation International

Josh Ulrich (left) is a high-performing utility lineman. Photo courtesy of Coast Electric Power Association.
Josh Ulrich (left) is a high-performing utility lineman. Photo courtesy of Coast Electric Power Association.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, electrical power line installers and repairers are ranked as the ninth-deadliest occupation in the United States. This distinction should come as no surprise given the inherent danger of the job.

Being fearless is an unwritten job requirement for utility linemen. In 2013, the U.S. Senate heralded these otherwise unsung heroes by declaring April 18 National Lineman Appreciation Day. To better understand the people who work tirelessly to provide us with power, we spoke with Josh Ulrich, a lineman for Coast Electric Power Association in Mississippi since 2004. Recognized among colleagues as a high performer, he was recently promoted to foreman.

Q: How do you cope with various weather conditions?

A: In order to succeed as a lineman, you have to plan ahead and be adaptable. Power outages often accompany severe weather, so we have to be prepared to be outside for long periods of time. We work in all conditions, from freezing to hot, from rain to snow.

Q: What is it like working during major storms?

A: Mississippi is prone to flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes. During a recent storm, there were multiple tornadoes, and we worked from 6:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. in wet and windy conditions. I was part of a team that worked over the Christmas holiday to help a neighboring utility restore power after tornadoes ravaged the region. While restoring power during the storm, it’s critical to listen for generators and to make sure a transfer switch is installed before we work on the line. Despite our warnings to residents to use transfer switches, people don’t follow our instructions. We could be electrocuted if we aren’t careful.

 Q: How do you mitigate the danger?

A: It is important to be as observant as possible. Job briefings are critical to address the hazards, weather conditions, and traffic in the area. I constantly observe the crew to make sure everyone wears the proper personal protective equipment and that there are no changes that could be a distraction. Everyone should strive to not make mistakes at work, but a mistake in our profession could be a matter of life and death.

 Q: Why did you become a lineman?

A: I wanted a career I could take pride in. My coworkers and I take great pride in seeing our hard work on display as we look at the power infrastructure. I began as an electrician, working residential and industrial low-voltage for five years. I learned about Coast Electric’s lineman program and thought it was a perfect next step, so I began taking night classes and working toward my Electrical Utility Technology degree. As part of the course of study, I earned many certificates, including emergency medical response and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, in addition to hands-on training and coursework. Naturally, I had extensive safety trainings on job site safety, underground and overhead installations, and mechanical equipment.

The electrical industry is constantly evolving, from telecommunications to power distribution. Just as we have to be adaptable in our day-to-day roles, we have to adapt to grid modernizations. We recently cut a ribbon on a new solar power generation facility, so we are about experience firsthand how this renewable energy will impact the future of power distribution.

Ms. Chavanne promotes ESFI through media relations, marketing, public relations, and communications.


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