"At Risk and Still on the Line," by Alpha Unit

Three years ago a lineman was electrocuted while working in an underground electrical vault in Benicia, California. He was employed by Pacific Gas & Electric Company. Two state investigations have held PG&E at fault for not having a supervisor monitor the work, and for other reasons. In spite of the hazards of being a lineman, this 26-year-old man loved his job, according to his girlfriend. Since his death and two subsequent deaths, PG&E has expanded its apprenticeship requirements and required all existing linemen to take one or two weeks of refresher training. The work is indeed dangerous, so many linemen prefer to be with a union. Two popular unions are the Utility Workers Union of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Linemen can spend up to five years in an apprenticeship program learning the skills of their trade. They have to know electrical theory, transformer theory, pole climbing and setting, rigging techniques, wire stringing techniques, and safety on the job. The time they put in to learn the trade includes training in handling electrical lines barehanded. “Barehanded?” people must wonder. “You can’t touch a live power line barehanded.” Yes. The term “barehanded” is sort of misleading. A lineman doing barehand work actually wears a suit consisting of a hooded jacket, bib-overall-style pants, socks, and gloves. The suit is made of 7 The Faraday Cage principle is that no electrical charge can be present on the interior of a charged cage. While the lineman is wearing the suit, the static electrical field connected to the suit redistributes the charge around the outside of the suit and not through the lineman. Barehand work minimizes disruption to customers while companies work on the lines, which is why demand for it has grown over the years. A 15-year veteran lineman, Karl Townie, enjoys the challenge of doing live-line work. He gets a kick out of some aspects of it, telling one writer that on the higher voltages, they can often hear the electricity arcing between their fingers. “One time when it got dark before we could get off the wire,” he said, “we could actually see the arcing between the fingers, too.” As with so many other things, the thrill and the danger go hand in hand. Karl Townie’s company requires a stringent certification process, after which a lineman is assigned to a working crew for 60 hours of close supervision. He has to do at least 25 hours of barehand work a year to stay certified. Barehand work is highly specialized. Generally, a lineman’s work is building and maintaining electrical power systems. They do it all: set towers and poles, maintain and repair overhead transmission lines, work in underground vaults and trenches, and install and maintain insulators and transformers. On occasion they’ll be working on city lighting or traffic signals. A lot of linemen love what they do and say that it isn’t for everyone. There are the obvious dangers of working with high voltage. And if you’re afraid of heights, forget it. The job might require a fair amount of travel, which could mean a lot of nights away from home. And you’ll be doing a lot of work in unfriendly weather conditions. After thunderstorms, hurricanes, fires, ice storms, and the like, people want the power back on – and it can’t be done soon enough.

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