Taking Care in the Air
By Rodger Nichols
Lineworkers see the world differently from 30 feet in the air, with only a climbing belt and a pair of spikes keeping them from the hard ground. But that is the nature of their job.
Jim Wilson is one of Northern Wasco County PUD’s journeyman linemen. He has 20 years’ experience, the past five at Northern Wasco. He is one on a crew of nine who keep things humming on more than 250 miles of PUD power lines.
Before landing in The Dalles, Jim worked in several places on high-voltage lines on high-tension transmission towers.
“Everything with transmission is bigger—bigger towers, bigger cranes, and bigger wire,” he says.
“Everything here is smaller, but that’s what I like about the trade. There’s a variety of work.
“Every day, it’s a little different. One day we might be setting a pole and the next day changing out wire or a transformer. That’s what I like about this job. It’s not just doing the same thing over and over. And it’s all outdoors, too. That’s a plus for me.”
The PUD service territory stretches from the mouth of the Deschutes River to Rowena and covers the city of The Dalles, giving lineworkers exposure to a wide variety of environments.
Jim says although workers get used to working on a pole, it can be intimidating at first.
“You have to learn to trust your gear,” he says. “I’ve never really been scared of heights. But I can remember when I went to line school, the first time I went up a 30-foot pole my legs started shaking. It was an adjustment, but you just have to learn to take things slowly at first, so you can progress.”
He says eventually he learned to flip his belt and go up and down.
“There’s a rhythm to it, and you can move pretty quickly once you get the rhythm down,” he says.
PUD employees use a bucket truck wherever possible. But some poles are in residents’ back yards or on steep terrain where vehicles can’t go. That means lineworkers must climb the poles with belts and spikes.
“Once or twice a week we have to climb,” Jim says.
One ironclad rule is that no lineworker works alone.
“It’s always at least two linemen, and it’s usually more than that,” Jim says. “We always have a safety watch at all times on the ground. Sometimes they can see something and yell up to you to point out something that might have been overlooked.”
A key piece of equipment the climber takes is a handline system.
“We always take the handline,” Jim says. “If you do forget something—or if you find something up there and you need a different piece of material or tools—you can drop the hook down to the person on the ground, and they can send you what you need.”
The PUD requires every lineworker to practice pole-top rescue using a dummy. This is a universal practice in the industry, and several companies make rescue dummies that can be equipped with coveralls, boots, hard hat and tool belt to simulate a real scenario.
“You use that handline,” Jim says. “You have to go around underneath the armpits and tie it off in front. From that point, using the pulley, the rescue climber or another worker on the ground can safely lower the worker to the ground.”
Once trained, everyone who climbs— apprentices and lineworkers—practices the rescue annually.
Planning is a key to remaining safe.
“We do a tailboard before we do anything,” Jim says. “We talk about the job, and before we go up there, we already have an idea where we’re going, who’s doing what tasks. This group works well as a team.”
Jim offers safety advice to the public.
“Before I got into the trade, I didn’t really even look up at a power line, so I don’t expect people to think about them a lot,” he says. “If there’s a down line, you don’t want to approach it, because you don’t ever know if it’s still live and can be dangerous. If they see something down— or see something they think is wrong— they should call the PUD and stay clear of it. We have the proper tools and the proper training to take care of things safely.”