When the lights are on, they’re the ones you rarely notice. But as soon as the lights go out, electric line workers are among the first out to make sure the power comes back on again.
In fact, Chris Huber, Great Bend District Manager with Wheatland Electric Cooperative, said linemen are unsung, and often unseen, first responders when Kansas weather rears its head.
“When everybody’s inside waiting for the lights to come on, these guys are out there, no matter the weather conditions,” Huber said. “Most people don’t take into consideration what they’re going through to get the lights back on.”
While stormy weather conditions add an extra layer of difficulty to the job, The job can be extremely physically demanding, even under ideal conditions.
Because much of the work they do requires electric lines to still be energized while they work (called “hot work”), line workers wear significant amounts of special protective gear even in the midday heat of summer. Brandon Ritchie, a journeyman lineman with Wheatland Electric in Great Bend, said that includes long-sleeve shirts, as well as rubber sleeves and rubber gloves to protect them from electrical current.
“Being a lineman is hard in perfect conditions, but when you add wind, temperatures, and mud (from wet roads), there’s a lot of environmental factors that go into being a lineman,” said Mike Morley, Director of Corporate Communications and Government Affairs for Midwest Energy.
When lines are energized, Huber said, Wheatland’s line workers are dealing with currents of 8,000 volts or more. Working around that much power, ensuring safety of the crews is paramount. Morely said it can be extremely challenging for linemen to maintain safety and focus under often hostile conditions.
“They’re not going to take any shortcuts to bypass the safety of the job,” Huber said. “The main goal is come to work, do your job, and get home safe to your family.”
Because of that, extensive measures are taken each day to make sure that going home safe after their work day is exactly what happens. Even simple jobs require extensive preparations.
Each day before crews go out on jobs, foremen hold briefings with their crews on all the details of the planned jobs, including detailed plans, assigned tasks for each crew member, and the safety precautions that will be in place for those jobs.
In Great Bend, Wheatland’s crews are responsible for construction, maintaining and repairing distribution lines and poles, which are the lines that carry power to home and business customers. Outside of the city, crews Sunflower Electric deals with transmission lines, which are the lines carrying power from power stations into different communities. Transmission lines carry higher voltage loads than distribution lines, Huber said.
“Anything that could possibly be a hazard, they discuss (ahead of time),” Huber said.
From there, a typical work day can involve several different tasks. Dax Walk, a line foreman with Wheatland Electric, said line workers must be well-versed in use of a variety of heavy machinery, including digging trucks, bucket trucks, vacuum trucks, skid steers and a several different power hand tools.
Even at the end of a regular day, though, line workers need to prepared to go out at a moment’s notice at all hours, and in any conditions. These hours can leave line workers exhausted. Because this, workers must follow guidelines requiring a specific number of hours of rest between shifts.
Walk said the best way for the public to help line workers after storms is to be patient. Because repairs and isolating problems can take a lot of time, especially with storm damage, it best to allow line crews time to explore and repair the problem.
And it is not a quick or easy process. Ritchie said even when they fix the most visible problem, such as downed power lines and poles, they still have to patrol the lines all the way back to the source to ensure there are not other invisible problems lurking elsewhere in the line. Re-energizing a line before all issues are addressed presents a hazard for workers and the public alike. In those instances, he said, it is best for the public not to try to identify the problems themselves when the power goes out.
Even in the best of conditions, it’s easy to take electricity for granted, Ritchie said. Electricity can go out at anytime, and for a multitude of reasons, from car wrecks to equipment malfunctions to wildlife. Because of that, line workers must be prepared for any situation at any time. That can include assisting other agencies should an emergency arise elsewhere.
Because of all that a line worker must be prepared for, the training process for line workers is extensive. The process starts with classroom training programs, which for line workers in the area are usually completed in Pratt or Manhattan. Beyond that, line workers are required to complete a four-year apprenticeship program, which includes both on-the-job training and additional classroom work. A lot of learning takes place through that, Huber said, as apprentices learn day-to-day on the job from the journeymen and foremen.
This brotherhood is an essential part of the job, because crews depend on each other heavily to get jobs done safely and correctly.
More said line workers are the heartbeat of their organization. “They truly are the front line. Nobody works harder. Nobody works in conditions that are more difficult than our linemen.”