One day last August, a 22-year-old apprentice lineman named Matthew Walker Johnson went to work near Frisco, Texas, not far from Dallas. He had been a lineman for two years and loved the job. This day, he was part of a four-man crew sent to repair a line belonging to another utility that accidentally had been cut the day before. In the afternoon, Johnson climbed a pole to move a pulley that would hike up a wire, says his father, Teddy C. Johnson.

ON THE LINE Apprentice Matthew W. Johnson loved this job. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Ann Johnson)

What happened next isn’t completely clear. But as Johnson secured his safety belt, his back apparently came in contact with an energized, 14,000-volt line, burning him badly. Doctors amputated a leg in an attempt to save him, but he never regained full consciousness and died the next day.

Government safety investigators have not yet released their accident report, but Johnson’s family last August sued several of the companies involved in Denton County Texas Probate Court. Defendants include Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, Waco, and contractor Llano Construction Services Inc., Wylie. CoServ Electric, another cooperative that actually employed Johnson, cannot be sued under Texas law. “The lines were not supposed to be hot at all,” claims Johnson’s father.

The bigger significance of Johnson’s death is not lost on those concerned about a recent upsurge in high-voltage power line accidents. Since 2000, informal counts suggest that yearly fatalities have jumped to 20 from what had been an average of 12. “Since about 1999 or 2000, the record’s not good,” says James Tomaseski, a former lineman who now is director of safety and health for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The reasons are complicated and have provoked new discussions of how and when to do work on hot lines—the predominant practice today.

The number of linemen employed by utilities, rural electrical coops, contractors and state and local government is about 110,000, half by some measures of what it was 20 years ago. At that time, fatal accidents also were more common, with one lineman dying each week from 1972 to 1986.

While the safety record has improved, the amount of work is growing. Existing lines must serve bigger populations and run through congested areas with plenty of trees. And there is little question that lines must be kept energized during maintenance to keep customers happy. About 75% of the work done by Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Light Co. is done hot, says spokesman Joe Balaban. “The reason we do the work live is to avoid interrupting customer service.” Lines also are charged with higher voltages—a national trend. “It used to be 4,000 volts for a distribution circuit. Now it’s 23,000 volts,” he says.

CONGESTION ZONE Utilities work amid many lines and do most of the jobs with power on. (Photo courtesy of Duquesne Light Co.)

Electrical industry restructuring also has bred a new bottom-line consciousness among electric utilities and other operators of transmission lines. Many are getting by with fewer workers and are largely abandoning apprentice training, say industry insiders. As a consequence, fewer linemen often perform more work.
And much more work is planned. Last summer’s East Coast blackout, Hurricane Isabel and other storms have stimulated work on a transmission and distribution grid whose fragile interdependence now is a national issue. With experienced journeymen scarce, younger and less experienced hands have been pressed to take more responsibility.

Crews are working longer hours, while promotions to foreman sometimes are made prematurely. One result, some say, is more deadly accidents. And when the voltage is several thousand times that delivered to an average light fixture—sometimes as high as 765,000 v in a transmission line—burns and injuries can be grotesquely severe. People who saw Matthew Johnson’s accident say they saw flames on one of his legs.

Not everyone agrees that there are more accidents. Statistics collected by the U.S. Labor Dept. do not separate out lineman deaths or indicate that the total number is holding steady. Union electrical contractors say that line contractor safety in the past decade has improved, as measured by incidents per 1,000 man-hours worked. Recent higher workloads due to hurricanes and the blackout have nudged accident rates upward, they say.

But others believe there is a more urgent problem. Rusty White, a 52-year-old former lineman in Ft. Worth, says he pegs fatalities at about 20 each year. As a result of what he sees as slipping safety practices, White started Safety Awareness Consultants last year, an advocacy group for workers and families involved in construction accidents.

Contractors perform much of the line repairs now, as much as 60%, some say. A key Labor Dept. official says contractors also account for a disproportionately high share of the deaths. Contractor personnel “are getting killed at twice the rate of those working for utilities,” says David Wallis, director of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s office of engineering safety. Contractor linemen forget to use personal protective equipment, such as insulated gloves, more often than utility linemen, he says.

But contractors also are hired to do many of the dangerous jobs that utilities or industrial owners prefer not to do, notes H. Brooke Stauffer, executive director for standards and safety at the National Electrical Contractors Association, Bethesda, Md. There also are deeper issues affecting jobsite behavior. At a recent meeting, NECA contractors and federal officials agreed that “a pervasive culture of risk-taking is partially to blame.”

Compounding the challenge is the fact that power line repairs are not performed uniformly throughout North America. In eastern U.S. states, employers tend to perform higher-voltage work wearing insulating gloves. In western states, much of the high-voltage work is performed with “hot sticks,” non-conducting tools. Each utility also has its own method of training, suited to its own system. For this reason, IBEW, NECA and other industry groups are formulating a national training standard that, if adopted by the Labor Dept., would bring more practice uniformity.

OSHA also has decided to get tougher with power line contractors. The agency’s stance against electrical contractor L.E. Myers, Rolling Meadows, Ill., may be a sign of what is in store. In October 2002, the firm, a subsidiary of MYR Group and one of the nation’s biggest specialty contractors, agreed to pay $105,000 in OSHA penalties and commit to safety improvements at jobsites throughout the Southeast.

The settlement followed a deadly accident in Tennessee. A 30-year-old Myers employee in an elevated basket came in contact with an ungrounded incoming power line energized by induced voltage from a nearby 500,000-v conductor. “This tragedy could have been avoided if the employer had simply left the grounds in place until all site work was completed in the substation,” says Ron McGill, OSHA’s Nashville area director.

In addition to paying the OSHA fine, L.E. Myers agreed to hire a vice president of safety and health with significant experience in line work. Under the agreement, the company also agreed to implement a comprehensive safety and health program, including accountability provisions and safety training for employees.

Another L.E. Myers accident, in 2000, has brought more trouble. Federal prosecutors have charged the company with misdemeanors for willfully violating safety regulations in connection with the electrocution of linemen Wade Cumpston and Blake Lane while working on a transmission tower in Plainfield, Ill. Prior to the criminal charges, OSHA claimed Myers failed to properly train employees and supervisors. In the months following the accident, former Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman imposed a $423,500 fine, claiming she was troubled by “the history of fatal accidents at this company.”

The criminal case currently is awaiting a decision as to whether the charges can be applied to L.E. Myers’ parent, MYR Group. “Neither L.E. Myers nor MYR Group believe there is any criminal wrongdoing with these unfortunate accidents caused by human errors” by the workers who died, says Corey Rubenstein, an attorney for the contractor. Myers carries out extensive safety training, he says. “Obviously, it’s a very dangerous industry and all participants have accidents from time to time,” he says.

OSHA recently hit other contractors hard. Last June, it proposed a $46,800 penalty against Louisiana-based Marlin Contracting Co., following a January accident that severely burned a worker who had been on the job for two days.

What’s Causing the Rash of Power Line Accidents?

Many recent power line accidents can be traced to two problems: induced voltage and removal of grounds in an improper sequence, says James Tomaseski, director of safety and health for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Workers often assume that a grounded line is dead, says Tomaseski, but having a grounded circuit is not enough to guarantee safety if there is an energized parallel circuit nearby. Induced current from nearby lines has caused many of the recent accidents involving grounded lines, he adds.

“You’d be surprised how many fatalities occur where grounds are put in incorrectly,” says Tomaseski. “Only luck prevented [workers] from being in series with two different potentials,” an elevated electrocution risk.

Tomaseski adds that when a line worker removes the ground end first, he or she can be electrocuted by the induced current. To guard against that kind of accident, a job hazard analysis should be performed every time. “I don’t know of a single accident that could not easily have been prevented,” says Tomaseski. “That’s the biggest thing.”

Southern U.S. projects seem particularly troubled. Between Oct. 1, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2002, staff from OSHA offices in Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and Alabama investigated 46 fatal accidents involving electrocutions. In an effort to reduce hazards that lead to tragedy, the agency has entered into an alliance with the Electric Power Associations of Mississippi to “promote a culture of prevention” through safety training and outreach programs.

Accidents are linked to linemen experience levels, and most workers are young, says James McGowan, vice president of safety and training for Jackson, Miss.-based Irby Construction Co., a nonunion unit of Quanta Services Inc., Houston. At Irby, veterans lead the way on work crews. “You’ve got to have the old experienced hands out there to show the young guys,” he says.

In the rush to get work done, careful mentoring can get overlooked, says safety advocate White. He says as crews are pressured to rush work, experienced workers sometimes are paired with little-trained apprentices. “In our industry, so many of the older, more experienced workers have retired or passed on and this is really affecting the safety out in the field,” says White.

The result is a dangerous combination of inexperience, change and confusion, White adds. “You get people working on the lines who don’t know the characteristics of the lines,” he says. “It is not uncommon for a crew to lose its foreman or a lineman and then have the most experienced man moved up to foreman, and then the most experienced groundman moved up to lineman, regardless of years of experience or skill level. They’re moving people up too fast.”

Byron Dunn is a Longmont, Colo., lineman concerned about the trend and resulting accident rate. “It takes a lot of years of being around it to really understand the forces you’re dealing with,” he says. Sounding a theme similar to contractor worries about worker risk-taking, he adds: “That complacency [around high-voltage lines] is what kills.”

Fatigue also can cause lapses. “There’s such a demand right now, and with the lack of qualified people, you have a tendency to work more hours,” says James F. Christensen, corporate safety director of Kansas City, Mo.-based PAR Electrical Contractors, also a unit of Quanta Services.

Many errors involve a lineman’s failure to ground, an improper grounding, or the lack of protective equipment. But IBEW’s Tomaseski is frustrated by how many crews and contractors still misunderstand electrical forces and the dangers they pose. He worries when he hears contractors advise their workers that “if it’s not grounded, it’s not dead,” because that creates the impression that grounded lines are always safe. “That’s the sad part,” says Tomaseski. “The real issue is what grounding means. Sometimes it’s enough, but it all depends.”

Quanta Services has been improving its practices by using robotic arms mounted on cranes. “It allows us to quickly do the preparatory work to string the conductor,” says Jimmy Pitts, the firm’s director of energized services. “It allows you to clear the energized conductors away from the support structure, to be able to do work in an isolated zone. You reduce the man-hours and enhance safety.”

HIGH LINES Ontario Hydro uses a special lift to gain access to transmission lines. Work styles vary across North America. (Photo by Industrial Marketing Services)

Even innovation and an often-expressed dedication to safety can fail contractors. For example, PAR Electrical has dramatically decreased its accident frequency in the past three years, while increasing its workload. But Quanta’s companies have had several fatalities in the last year, too. “We cannot discuss the recent accidents at the present time but PAR, like all Quanta operating companies, follows strict safety procedures,” Christensen says.

In some ways, Matthew Johnson appears to have been more typical of the average lineman recruit of 40 years ago, when many of the best workers came from farm households that fostered strength and mechanical skills, veterans say. Linemen of past eras cut striking figures in felt hats that didn’t conduct electricity and with work pants tucked into boots.

That romantic lure no longer is a big draw but it still beckoned Matthew Johnson. He recently had bought his first house and his “dream truck”—major milestones for a lineman satisfied with his career choice.

On the day he died, Johnson was repairing another cooperative’s line. “He was just a good kid,” says Cheryl Ann Johnson, his mother. He was also doing what he loved, family members say. Now, they are all left to ponder the fate of their lost lineman. “You read some of these stories,” says Cheryl Ann Johnson, “and you just keep thinking, ‘Why?’ ”