What Is The Role Of Powerline Workers Today?

Photographed by Brett Gundlock

The world of powerline workers today is changing, but age-old skills still play a major role, and, as always, safety is the top priority.

We recently spoke with John O’Brien, President of JOB-INC Electric, a member of the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario. He started with the IBEW as a local contractor in Waterloo. Over time, he became more interested in testing, servicing and education aspects. We also spoke with Jake Lewis, Apprentice at JOB-INC. Together, the two provided unique perspectives on the role of modern line workers.

What Is A Powerline Worker?

The job of a powerline worker is to keep a steady supply of electricity running to our homes and businesses. They’re responsible for installation, maintenance and repair of electrical cables and powerlines, above and below ground. It’s demanding work, both mentally (requiring extensive ongoing training) and physically.

“Being up on an elevated platform or pole will put your physical fitness to the test,” explained O’Brien.

Challenges Met With Safety

Line workers deal with challenges day to day that the average person can only imagine. Most of their workday is spent outdoors, no matter the weather, perched in hydraulic buckets or digging trenches for underground cables. One of the most challenging aspects, in O’Brien’s opinion, is the diversity of the job.

“You can be on the construction crew, just doing poles; switchgear equipment can be both in the air and on the ground,” he said.

Every job and every job site is different, necessitating constant alertness. At the same time, line workers need to troubleshoot the cause of power outages and other problems and proceed with the appropriate repair.

Obviously, safety must be foremost at all times.

 “The awareness of the job is crucial,”

John O’Brien, President of JOB-INC Electric

Always Learning

Example of an indoor switch caused by improper connection at the outside line tap allowing moisture to penetrate the cable thus causing a power failure.

All this demonstrates the importance of contractors and IBEW helping apprentices learn correctly.

“We take all our apprentices and journeymen under our wing, educating them on current practices and what we’ve seen in the past. History makes our education sharing a lot better. Pictures are a powerful resource to showcase exactly what we’ve seen in the field,” said O’Brien.

“As an apprentice, I was taught right away about the importance of tailboard meetings and the relationship between local hydro authorities in communicating hold offs, station guarantees, etc. Over time, I’ve seen that the same is true for all new employees including experienced IBEW journeymen new to the company, said Lewis.

In fact, powerline work is a never-ending learning process.

“We are constantly learning safer methods from each other. We all know the importance of keeping a history of faults we have found to refer back to them as a way of learning from our past experiences, as well as educating our co-workers who may not have been on the same job,” added Lewis.

“Learning doesn’t stop after apprenticeship. You’re always learning. We constantly send our linemen to various learning activities from infrared scanning, ropes and rigging to even traffic school,” noted O’Brien.

What’s Changing In The World Of Powerlines

Probably the biggest change is where the lines are located. “We’re seeing a lot more underground cable work,” explains O’Brien, noting this does not simplify work.

“Now the danger of an underground cable becomes a lot greater compared to being up in the air. When you’re on the ground, you’re at a higher risk due to the lack of insolation.”

Nevertheless, traditional wisdom still applies. “I still think the importance of teaching stuff like how to spur a pole and bucket rescue are crucial for an apprenticeship’s safety,” O’Brien said.