Using the Right Stuff Linemen Are Better Off Choosing Latest and Safest

By Clifford Petty, 3M Fall Protection

On any given day, linemen must meet physical demands that push their bodies to the limit. They work all day with heavy equipment, climbing poles, digging holes, working hundreds of feet off the ground on lattice steel towers, often in the most extreme weather conditions. Linemen are clearly made of the right stuff.

Because of these challenging demands, linemen have always been adapting to get the job done. They must be flexible when dealing with the difficulties of their jobs and their working environments-even with the tools and equipment they use. An issue stemming from this culture of adaptation that must be addressed, is how standards for safety equipment are followed-or not followed.

Leading makers of fall protection and safety equipment have developed new tools to push the limits of traditional equipment, like body belts, while offering more comfort and functionality than ever.

Recent mandates issued by OSHA in 2015 have reenergized old debates about the misuse of equipment. Both the mandates and advancements in equipment design call for the need to adopt new training, processes and equipment. Linemen need to apply their skills of adaptation to adopting tools and equipment that will make them safer, more comfortable and, ultimately, more productive.

Barriers to Adopting Better, More Productive Equipment

Shortcuts are quick, easy and cheap

In any type of work, when workers are faced with ongoing discomfort, their natural reaction is to adjust. Linemen are no exception. To overcome the stress on the body, they will adjust and misuse their pole climbing equipment to make it more tolerable. Body belts are often worn loose and low so they can be pushed down below the hips to take pressure off the feet. All experienced climbers know the feeling of their body belts slipping down too low and having to stop to recover the belt before it slides down to their knees.

The endless miles of circuits running through backyard easements and in locations that are not accessible to bucket trucks make pole climbing necessary for utility linemen.

Wearing belts inappropriately has become a standard procedure for many. They do it to stay at height with less discomfort and pain. But, in doing so they risk their personal safety and put their employer at risk of fines for safety violations.

Decreased need for pole climbing equipment

For linemen who are used to doing construction or maintenance work from a bucket truck, instances where pole climbing is required might be few and far between. Workers don’t want to take the time to adopt new tools and processes for a task they perform intermittently at most. The reality of this profession is that the sudden need for a lineman to climb poles for long periods of time is inevitable. The endless miles of circuits running through backyard easements and in locations that are not accessible to bucket trucks make pole climbing necessary.

Due to inconsistent and varied workloads, a lineman may not be conditioned for the physical demands of heavy pole climbing. Beyond the physical strain of performing tough work intermittently, pole climbing equipment can cause discomfort, pain or even physical harm. With a traditional lineman belt, workers must stand on the narrow stirrups of their pole climbers while leaning back onto their belt to keep the pressure on the safety strap so that it holds its position on the pole. This can be extremely uncomfortable and often results in workers tiring quickly or experiencing significant stiffness and pain both on and off the jobsite.

Designing a Real Solution

The only long-term, safe solution to the issue of comfort and safety is properly designed equipment. While it’s easy to accept and even applaud a worker’s effort for making the best out of the tools they’ve been given, it’s far better to select tools that work for the application. If a body belt is properly designed for function and comfort, a climber will be less likely to misuse it and compromise safety.

The recent OSHA mandate to use a fall restricting device has dramatically changed the way linemen work on poles. Wood pole fall restricting devices (WPFRD) have been used for decades to provide fall protection by restricting around a pole if a climber slips or cuts out. Trouble is, these devices have fallen short when it comes to meeting and exceeding worker’s comfort, productivity and safety needs. Leaders in fall protection and safety equipment design have developed new tools to push the limits of what traditional WPFRDs can do while offering more comfort and functionality.

Certain manufacturers have begun to develop linemen belts, like makeshift swings, based on the ways linemen have typically misused them. For example, 3M Fall Protection has a new seat belt that features a cup-shaped design that wraps under the climber’s seat. This allows the climber to use the WPFRD as a swing to gain full advantage of the device. The cup shape also keeps the belt up on climbers’ hips, keeping them in the belt if they are accidentally inverted.

Belts that distribute the climber’s weight and transfers pressure back and forth from the seat to the upper back significantly reduce ergonomic injuries by providing added comfort and support to the lower back. Workers can now hang in the air safely and reduce the amount of force needed to stay at height.

Previously, when climbers would misuse their equipment it would often pull apart at the seams. The old belts were not designed to be stretched to extreme angles and did not hold up to abuse. By engineering new devices to allow a greater range of movement, the wear and tear on the device also has been reduced. The additional flexibility added with the “swing” motion allows climbers to reach farther than ever and turn side-to-side with ease.

New WPFRDs can connect and disconnect faster when overcoming obstacles, provide easy-to-use secondary safety tools, and can engage with a pole and hold position, allowing workers to use them in a completely different way. Instead of constantly leaning and applying force to the feet to maintain connectivity, these devices can be used as an anchor point that can suspend the climber, taking pressure off the feet.

Implementing the New Solution

Due to new product and tool innovations available to lineman, one might think that traditional body belts would have become obsolete. That is not the case-yet.

The power industry, traditionally resistant to change, is one of the last big industries to implement complete fall protection. Linemen who have become accustomed to their old body belts and safeties now must learn how to climb poles again. With the new equipment on the market, linemen who continue to use the same brand or type of equipment, simply because it’s what they’re used to, are missing out on equipment that’s properly designed and comfortable.

Finding the best system is as simple as trying on a few and giving them a try. Safety and fall protection equipment companies have training specialists who offer on-site courses specialized to the particular needs of a construction site or crew. These training specialists, many of whom spent years in the field as linemen, can evaluate a site’s equipment needs and outfit each team and individual worker. These specialists also play a key role in designing fall protection equipment; they know how the industry works and learned their trade in the same apprentice programs and training courses that continue to be used today.

Traditional tool belts are still predominately used in apprentice programs and training courses. Courses are hands-on and often equip students with belts on their first day. From the beginning, all workers are taught on traditional equipment that is quickly becoming obsolete. 3M Fall Protection and Safety experts encourage safety managers to introduce all employees-from new hires and more experienced workers-to the ergonomically correct tools available to them.

Managers must make sure climbers understand and know how to use tools that increase productivity by allowing a greater range of motion, increase comfort through ergonomic design, and increase safety with a functionality that encourages users to wear the equipment properly. They should be mindful of the resistance to change, especially with seasoned workers. Adopting a new way of climbing can be intimidating and stressful. In addition, adjusting to the new equipment can be especially difficult for a climber who is spending more time in a bucket truck than on a pole.

Ultimately, if workers have to wear ill-fitting equipment or they are struggling to make their old equipment work, it means they are using the wrong gear. Power companies make substantial investments sustaining their skilled work force. Ensuring that their workers are comfortable and protected with the best available equipment and training should always be a top priority.

Clifford Petty is an electrical utility specialist for 3M Fall Protection. He’s responsible for company growth and advancement in the electrical utility industry. Previously, Petty worked in the electrical utility industry for 32 years. More information about new ergonomic seat belts for linemen, and other fall protection and safety tools that support workers’ overall comfort and safety is available at www.CapitalSafety.com.

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