At the Salt River Project's climbing school, students earn their place in the sun not only by successfully climbing to the top, but also by safely finding their way back down. The school serves a two-fold purpose: to identify serious journeyman lineman candidates and to teach them safe climbing techniques.

Linemen are a tough breed, especially in the desert Southwest, where they must climb poles as high as 70 ft and work with unforgiving high-voltage electricity in searing heat. Consequently, training must be comprehensive and aggressive.

The following are seven tips for training the journeymen linemen of the future.

  1. Make the training challenging, but keep your students safe

    Salt River Project (SRP; Tempe, Arizona) is a public electric utility that serves more than 920,000 customer accounts in a three-county area of central Arizona. When climbing school begins, typically in late June, sunrise temperatures can be in the mid-80s, and afternoon temperatures can approach 120°F.

    Instruction occurs over a three-week period in June and July, from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The school usually has 10 to 12 candidates, with one or two dropouts sometimes occurring after the first week.

    “Climbing a pole is not for everyone,” says J.D. Newham, head instructor for the program. Newham, an SRP electric line-working foreman, has been a journeyman lineman for seven years and has been involved with the SRP climbing school for five years. He is assisted in the climbing school by SRP's Matt Peek, who's been a journeyman lineman for a decade.

    The first four days are the most challenging, Newham says. “New climbers can expect splinters, blisters and bruises,” he says. “They quickly discover this is exhausting, physically demanding work.”

    SRP constantly monitors class participants for heat exhaustion and ensures they are properly hydrated with water. With the high temperatures, a person can get in distress quickly if not careful, Peek says.

  2. Require the use of fall-safe devices

    During the first week, SRP teaches its candidates the proper use of a harness, climbing belt and gaffs with the assistance of a “fall-safe” device. A fall-safe device includes a harness, lanyard and engineered cable system that protects climbers if they gaff-out or slip, preventing them from an extended free fall and hitting the ground. The school requires all climbers to use fall-safe devices the first week.

    “Climbers ascend and descend free-style continually for eight hours without the use of a skid, but all will have fall-safe protection,” Newham says.

  3. Encourage your students to practice

    As an instructor, Newham says one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is watching new climbers working hard to develop safe climbing skills and gain confidence daily. While some climbers adapt readily, others struggle, he says. Many practice what they have learned on their own time, usually in groups so they can watch out for each other.

    “Climbers quickly realize that the battle to climb and to pass is mental,” Peek says. “If they win the battle, the rest will fall into place with practice.”

  4. Teach them how to use belts

    During the second week, participants learn how to climb using two types of belts. They also learn rudimentary lineman skills, such as how to bat an arm onto the pole, hang a small transformer and run wire. This is also the week they learn how to erect and use a baker-board platform for their work. Climbers still are protected by a fall-safe device.

  5. Let them go solo

    When candidates learn how to use a Canadian-style belt that chocks the pole as they climb during the third week, they do so without the benefit of fall-safe protection. “By this time, climbers have the confidence and knowledge to go solo and use this type of skid,” Newham says. “They also eventually must demonstrate that they can climb free-style to the top of a 45-ft distribution pole, then descend using their belt.”

    As the fall-safe device gets in the way of some of the pole construction, climbers start to develop their climbing skills without the use of the “lifeline.”

  6. Train candidates to be future linemen

    Participants learn lineman skills, including framing and wrecking out, in the SRP climbing school.

    “At the end of the third week, the climbers have been up and down a pole for 80 hours or more,” Peek says. “They're exhausted and bruised, but they all are grateful for learning the essential pole-climbing skills that will be a foundation of their career as journeymen linemen.”

    While it's demanding training, those who complete it are on their way to enjoying a rewarding career as a journeyman lineman, Newham says.

  7. Make the climbing school part of your utility's commitment to safety

    SRP's Safety Management Statement reads, in part, “Safety must always come first, regardless of all other priorities.” The introduction of SRP's “Accident Prevention Rules” booklet, published and updated regularly and distributed company-wide, states that “the best safety tool is a well-trained, safety-conscious employee.”

SRP won the American Public Power Association's (APPA) 2005 Electric Utility Safety Award for safe operating practices. APPA nationally represents more than 2000 not-for-profit, community and state-owned electric utilities.

Additionally, Occupational Hazards, the magazine of safety, health and loss prevention, named SRP one of the 2003 Safest Companies in America. SRP was chosen based on recommendations by industry professionals, recognition by industry associations, participation in national safety programs, state and local awards, as well as the occupational health and safety philosophy and programs of each company. Occupational Hazards selected SRP because its management has developed a culture where safety and health are important values that help shape how work is planned and carried out.

Robert Kirschenmann started his career as a lineman in 1973 as a construction electrician for the U. S. Navy SEABEES. In 1978, he was hired by the Southern California Edison Co. and achieved the position of service crew foreman in 1987. In 1990, he moved to Oregon and worked for Pacific Power & Light in the Grants Pass and Roseburg area. In 2001, he joined Salt River Project, where he is currently a line crew foreman in the East Valley District. [email protected]

Attention readers: Do you have some tips to help keep linemen safe on the job? If so, e-mail Amy Fischbach, contributing editor, at [email protected] with your 750-word how-to stories and a photo of your crew. If your story is accepted, it will appear in a future Safety Talk.