Climbing School is Best Protection

By Chuck Herron (Ret.) of City of Burbank, California and Joe Grothaus of Egyptian Electric Cooperative Association

Chuck Herron started out as a lineman with City of Burbank, 38 ½ years ago. Back then they learned to climb by putting a pole in the ground with a pit around it filled with sawdust.  When the apprentice had a “cut out” he was taught to hug the pole as his first response. He may get a few splinters but at least it would break the fall. 

About 20 years ago, in a training class Herron, who was then Electrical Distribution Supervisor, had a young apprentice fall and break his pelvis.  Later that evening, Herron had to meet the family and a very distraught wife, not to mention the young employee who had potentially permanent injuries.

That was when Herron vowed to never have to meet another spouse or loved one because of a training fall.  He sought out equipment, now referred to as Lifehook® systems which use self-retracting lifelines, or “yo yo’s”, although these fall arrestor systems do not spring back when you fall. They stop you almost immediately, typically within 12 inches, leaving you safely suspended in the area.  This is how Herron, the City of Burbank and hundreds of other climbing schools protect new apprentices as they develop the skill of climbing.

These fall arrest systems not only reduce injuries and increase the training productivity, they also reduce the fear of falling, which dramatically excels the learning curve for apprentices who have never been up a pole before. Trainees are able to concentrate on climbing skill development and proper pole climbing techniques they will need to use in the field.

As any lineman will tell you, climbing a pole is a unique skill. Herron says it’s hard to explain, the way it feels the first time you try to climb using hooks. In his 38 plus years, he figures only about half of apprentices take to it easily. Some never do.  Even more challenging once you learn to climb; you have to learn to work on a pole. It’s an art that many continue to polish at rodeos such as the KC International Rodeo where City of Burbank sends a group every year.

Providing fall protection out in the field is a balance between safety and real world conditions.  Many utilities say there are too many obstacles on poles to be harnessing up 100% of the time.  The City of Burbank, like most utilities, has gone to more and more bucket trucks but there are still backyard poles and rural systems where a bucket truck isn’t available. 

Herron says it starts with the climbing school. Instructors are very critical on the issue of climbing and many fail. Only when an instructor sees the level of confidence and skills mastered is an apprentice certified to climb. That’s the best fall protection.

Climbing Experience

“Any fall protection system is only as good as the climber’s confidence.”

That’s what seasoned trainers and superintendents say about fall protection.  Joe Grothaus operations manager at Egyptian Electric Cooperative Association, Steeleville, Illinois, says all of their journeymen are required to be climbing certified.  If someone needs climbing certification they are sent to either Springfield (Lincoln Land Community College) or another state association school. This typically only occurs when someone retires and many journeymen that are being hired come with climbing school certification. Lincoln Land Community College offers a two-week climbing school that teaches pole-climbing techniques, some basic framing and pole assembly, and line-building instruction.

Climbing school does two things. First it tends to weed out the ones who don’t like to climb, which is a big part of the job. And second, they come back confident climbers, which only get better with experience.

Fall protection at the schools Egyptian Electric has attended have always had Lifehook®  systems and self-retracting lifelines to protect the climbers while they are learning.  Once they are properly trained and learn to do it right they develop even more confidence. To this date, Egyptian Electric has never had a fall protection issue among its four line crews and four trouble crews.

A few years ago, OSHA mandated crews wear a full-body harness while working in the bucket. This has been the only real change Grothaus has seen in fall protection. Grothaus admits he comes from the old school way of thinking. You learn to do it right and you keep improving your skills, regardless if its climbing or changing out an insulator on a live conductor.

One thing Herron and Grothaus agree on. Since the climbing schools started using Lifehook® fall arrester systems they have not seen a single fall injury in any of their apprentice classes.

Chuck Herron is the former Manager of Electric Division for the City of Burbank California.

Joe Grothaus is Operations Manager for the Egyptian Electric Cooperative Association in Steeleville, Illinois.

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