A (careful) day in the life of a lineworker

Larry’s typical day as an electric co-op lineworker actually started the night before. He was getting ready for bed when a woman reported her power was out. It was Larry’s weekly overnight to be on call, so the co-op truck was already in his driveway. He drove it to the woman’s house, ID’d a problem in the base of the meter, installed a temporary fix until an electrician could get out the next day and returned home two hours later. He would report for work at the co-op office by 7:30 the next morning.

“I like hunting down problems,” said Larry. “I know I’m doing something the members can’t do themselves. They depend on us.”

Larry’s like a lot of electric utility lineworkers, said John Dvorak, director of safety and loss control for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.

“There are more people who can’t do this work than can do it,” said Dvorak. “It takes specific skills and intestinal fortitude. They’re a ‘get it done’ type of personality.”

Larry isn’t like a lot of lineworkers, he is a lot of lineworkers. He’s actually not a real person, but a combination of the real people I interviewed for this story about a typical day for a lineworker.

Following procedure

Larry started his day in a room with the rest of the lineworkers, leafing through stacks of paper—checklists, maps, work orders—planning the day’s work. They compared notes, asked who was familiar with the area they were headed to and analyzed last night’s college ball game.

In addition to taking time to coordinate the plans and paperwork, these guys (there are a few women among the more than 15,000 co-op lineworkers around the country) need to keep track of a lot of equipment. Neatly organized shelves in the warehouse hold saws, drills, climbing hooks, insulated work poles, trash cans and binoculars. They need to be wearing safety gear or have it close at hand—hard hat, safety glasses, fire-retardant uniforms, steel-toed shoes, regular work gloves, hot-line safety gloves.

One more delay kept the crews from driving off to their first jobs, and it was probably the most important reason of all—the weekly safety meeting.

The co-op’s safety coordinator opened the meeting. She said that while catastrophic contact with electric current is always top concern, today’s meeting would focus on avoiding “slips, trips and falls that can cause very big issues.” A safety specialist from the state co-op association told the group that he disagreed with the common idea that a lineworker’s job is dangerous: “It’s hazardous and unforgiving, but it doesn’t have to be dangerous if you follow the right procedures. We have the tools, the rules and the knowledge that can keep it from being dangerous.”

By mid-morning, the convoy was ready. Three lineworkers drove three trucks: a service truck, a bucket truck pulling a trailer with a large spool of wire and a digger truck with a huge auger on top and pulling a trailer carrying a backhoe. They headed across the county for the day’s job—moving a ground-mounted transformer 500 feet up a hill, closer to an underground connection to a new barn.

“It’s going to be muddy out there after the rain we’ve had,” said Larry. “When you’re working on underground connections, mud is not your friend.”

We neared the site by late morning. To avoid interrupting the field work, the team stopped for an early lunch at a truck-stop McDonald’s. Over burgers, I asked Larry about his training and his typical day.

We don’t say ‘hurry up’

“There’s nothing routine,” he said. A work plan might get changed because someone crashed their car into a utility pole. Tomorrow he would be presenting a safety demonstration to a group of elementary school students. He told about the satisfaction of traveling out of state to help repair hurricane damage.

When the caravan arrived at the work site, the trucks drove up the packed, crushed-rock driveway, avoiding the soft ground on either side.

The three lineworkers gathered near the front of one of the trucks for what a lot of co-ops call a “tailgate meeting” and this co-op calls a “job briefing.” They read through forms, noting the address, cross street, job and account number. All three men signed the form.

They broke their huddle and de-energized the lines they would be working on, calling to let the office know the power had been cut. The next step was to use the backhoe to dig around the new connection pipes sticking out of the ground, making room for a ground-mounted transformer.

When the backhoe finished digging around the new transformer location, it drove down to the old transformer site. The crew unhooked the electric connections then chained the transformer to the backhoe’s loader bucket to be carried up the hill. But to keep the backhoe from getting stuck in the mud on the trip up the hill, the trucks had to be backed down the driveway to clear the way for the backhoe to drive up on firmer ground.

Two of the crew pulled new wire underground, then cut and spliced the two-inch diameter wires into the transformer box. They secured the connections before cleaning up the work site.

On the return trip, the convoy visited the truck stop to top off the gas tanks. Back at the co-op, they checked the paperwork for the next day’s jobs, then stocked the trucks with the equipment they would need for an early start.

Before we said goodbye, I asked Larry what he thought of the time it took to follow all the procedures of their work day.

“We don’t think, ‘this is taking a long time,’” he said. “We just think, ‘this is how you do it.’ We don’t say, ‘hurry up.’ We look out for each other.”

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.