Modern bucket trucks rumbled into the electric utility industry starting in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that McCullough Electric Cooperative in Brady, Texas, saw its first such vehicle.

Danny Williams, now the manager of loss control at Texas Electric Cooperatives (statewide) in Austin, was a young McCullough Electric groundman back then.

“We might have been one of the last co-ops in the state to get a bucket truck,” he recalls. “Everything we did was off the wood.”

Experts say many factors were at play. Humid southern summers discouraged rubber sleeves. Difficulty climbing up and over pole structures made harnesses hard to sell.

“Probably a lot of why they didn’t embrace it is because they weren’t trained,” says Don Harbuck, senior vice president of customer success at Northwest Lineman College. “Think about it. I’m out there, and I’ve been working, putting poles in the ground and stringing wire for 10, 15 years, and I still got all my fingers and toes. Then somebody comes along and says, ‘Wait a minute now. We can’t do that the way we used to. We have to do it this way.’ Yet nobody’s trained them in why we have to go to the new method.”

Dwight Miller, director of safety and loss control at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives (statewide/G&T) in Columbus, says “safety really was and still is an evolution. As principles and equipment were introduced and developed, you might see one utility adopt [them], but another 15 or 20 years pass before becoming widely used in the industry.”

Take fall protection equipment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) now requires employees working at heights of more than 4 feet on a pole, tower, or similar structure to wear a body belt or body harness system that attaches to a pole.

But 100 years before the OSHA ruling, someone thought high-climbing linemen needed extra protection. While writing The American Lineman, an exhaustively researched look at the history of linework in the United States, Alan Drew discovered a patent drawing showing the same fall-restraint concept.

“We could not confirm they were ever produced, but it shows that they were thinking about mitigating pole falls way back in 1914,” Drew says.

As daily demands and common voltages grew in the electric industry, job site dangers did as well. In the industry’s infancy, employers expected workers to take risks. As a result, about one in three linemen—called “boomers” back then—died on the job, Drew notes. But companies eventually came around and “began creating safety rules and work procedures that began to save lives.”

The creation of OSHA in 1971 had a big impact. But, as co-op safety experts point out, so did access to training, with a proliferation of lineman schools and programs.

As the head of training for Texas cooperatives, Williams oversees 52 training schools for 100 co-ops, municipal utilities, and contractors. “You can have all the equipment in the world, but if they’re not trained to operate it and operate it safely, you’re back to square one.”

Photo Gallery | Safety Gear Through the Years

Many thanks to Northwest Lineman College Senior VP Alan Drew, author of The American Lineman, and NRECA’s Bud Branham and Robert Harris for their extensive assistance in the completion of this article and illustrations.

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