This Could Be the Greatest Lineman Tradition

The Lineman Life Podcast

I want to talk to you today about being your brother’s keeper, when you hear the saying “you are your brother’s keeper” or “being your brother’s keeper,” what do you think about? What I was taught was, being your brother’s keeper means you look out for yourself but are always looking out for your fellow lineman, just like you would for your own brother. Being your brother’s keeper is more than just a cliché it is a real thing, it can have a huge influence on keeping everyone on your crew safe, and also getting everyone home safely to their family’s every night.

Lineman have always had traditions, brother’s keeper is one of those traditions that has been passed down. Hopefully, you learned about it from the Linemen that trained you, and then you passed that knowledge down to the men you teach. That is what Linemen do. If you never had anyone tell you about it listen up, being your brother’s keeper is one of the most important lessons a Lineman could ever learn. When you look out for the guys on your crew just like you would for your own brother, it has a much greater influence on the safety of your fellow lineman than any safety rule could ever have. You hold the power to prevent accidents or injuries. The simple fact is that you are out there on the crew, your supervisor is not out there with you every day, your manager is not there, and the safety director, he’s not there. You are there, so you can have a greater influence on what goes on, more than anybody sitting in an office ever could.

One of my favorite movies is 300, this movie is a perfect example of what I am talking about. Have you ever seen the movie 300? You know the movie where all of the guys have ripped abs? That movie was based on the battle of Thermopylae where 300 Greek Spartans held off 150,000 Persians soldiers for seven days. Now the Spartan soldiers were mainly armed with a spear and a shield.

The Spartans invented a new way to battle it was called the phalanx formation. In the phalanx formation, individual battles were suppressed for the good of the whole group. They didn’t want individual heroes they relied on community and unity of the soldiers. The phalanx formation was formed by a group of soldiers standing very close to each other with their shields out in front of them and their spears pointed forward.

The shield they carried was called an Aspis, it was about 3 feet wide and weighed about 15 lbs. It was made out of 3 layers; wood was the middle layer with bronze on the outside and leather on the inside. The revolutionary part of this shield was the handle; the handle was on the side with a piece of leather in the middle that went over the forearm. It was called an Argive grip. This grip prevented the possibility of the shield moving side to side after being hit, so the Spartans rarely lost their shields. This also allowed the soldiers greater mobility to capitalize on their offensive opportunities. It also allowed them to form a solid wall of shields in front of them, each Spartans shield covered themselves but also part of the man standing next to them. If you look at the picture at the top you can see what I mean.

This is how King Leonidas who was the king of the Spartans described it, “We fight as a single impenetrable unit, that is the source of our strength. Each Spartan protects the man to his left from thigh to his neck with his shield, one single weak spot and the phalanx shatters.” (300)

They had to trust their neighbor to protect them because part of their neighbors shield was protecting them. The Spartans were taught to be loyal and trustworthy; they also had to have great commitment and mental toughness to stay in the formation during the battle. The Spartans biggest disgrace was to lose their shield.

This is exactly how we are as Linemen, everyone has their own shield and is responsible for their own safety. But just like the Spartans in the phalanx formation, your shield also covers the safety of the man next to you. One weak spot, our phalanx shatters and people get hurt. We work together for the safety of the group. Just like a battle, what we do is dangerous, it takes everyone’s shields working together to win the battle against injuries. Our shields in the field are our actions and observations; you need to speak up when you see someone who might be getting themselves in trouble. Maybe they are taking shortcuts, circumventing safety rules or maybe they just don’t see something. You have to look out for everyone on your crew.

There is another scene in the movie where Ephialtes who is deformed and has a hump in his back wants to be a Spartan because his father was one., he ask King Leonidas, who is the leader of the Spartans if he could fight with them. Leonidas ask him to raise his shield like required in the phalanx formation. Ephialtes is unable to get his shield up due to his deformity, King Leonidas tells him he cannot use him because he cannot protect his fellow soldier during battle. This mirrors us as lineman, not everyone that wants to be a lineman has the tools to succeed. There are many want to be’s out there. If you can’t use your shield to be your brother’s keeper, we can’t use you.

Remember I said a Spartan losing his shield was a big disgrace? I have been guilty of it too, I want to tell you about the time I lost my shield and wasn’t my brother’s keeper. Awhile back when I was an apprentice on the crew, we were working on Edisto Beach, SC right on the front beach, it was a beautiful, sunny summer day, not a cloud in the sky, if you wanted to have a job somewhere, this was it. My lineman Rick was up in the bucket, Rick was a hard ass, he knew his job and he didn’t have a lot of patience for apprentices. There were only three of us on the crew that day and I was the ground-man. The job was to dead-end three new phases on the back of a crossarm that had hot primary and a transformer on the other side. The line he was pulling up was grounded. I pulled up the first phase on the handline and Rick was putting the final sag on the wire with a hot hoist. Once he got it on the hoist I really wasn’t paying attention anymore to what was going on up the pole. Seconds later I heard a large arc and the bang from a fuse blowing. The tail of the primary being pulled up had made contact with the transformer jumper. Rick was not hurt, but the contact had blown the transformer fuse and also knocked out the circuit which had a tag on it. We immediately called dispatch and got the line back hot.

Well, Rick was all in my shit, why didn’t you tell me it was so close, why weren’t you paying attention. “What?” I was thinking what an ass; you were the one that screwed up, not me. But now that I think about it, I lost my shield; I wasn’t my Brother’s Keeper, I could have stopped this incident from happening if I had been paying attention. Ultimately it was Rick’s fault, but I could have done more.

But David, I’m just an apprentice, they won’t listen to me. I know sometimes it’s hard to call each other out were on the crew you might be an apprentice and you are going to have to put yourself out there if you are going to point out something to a more senior guy. I’m not saying be a smart ass, ask some questions if you think someone might be getting themselves in trouble. It’s got to be done from a genuine concern, not a “got ya.” “My lineman has been doing this for 10 years, he is going blow up if I say something.” What does all that matter if you prevent somebody from getting hurt or damaging some equipment it would be worth it, wouldn’t it? Just tell them “I am being your brother’s keeper,” that’s all. You see things everyday out there on the crew, people not following procedures, not following the safety rules, getting in to bad habits, use your shield, again you have the biggest influence on preventing accidents, 100 times more than anybody that sits in the office. If someone gets pissed off so be it, it’s not personal, it’s about work. One day they might thank you.

I just read a story where a crew was setting a pole in front of a substation, they dug the hole, an apprentice was on the butt of the pole, when they went to lift the pole it was top heavy so when the pole got about halfway up the apprentice lost control of the pole and the pole contacted a 69KV transmission line, the apprentice was killed. Now do you think this crew was being their brother’s keeper? This apprentice had no rubber gloves on, they had no kind of hotline tag on any circuits, the pole was top-heavy when it was lifted. You don’t think anybody else on the crew noticed that that pole was not balanced correctly. They didn’t do a tailgate meeting. Where was this apprentices brothers keepers? Whose shield was protecting him? Do you think the apprentice was scared to say something? We have to get back to calling someone out if it’s wrong. Don’t just stand there and let something happen. If you look at almost any incident, if someone would have said something or pointed out an issue it might not have happened.

You know I didn’t really tell you what happened to the Spartans at the end of the battle, remember Ephilates the guy who couldn’t make it as a Spartan? After he was turned down by King Leonidas he betrayed the Spartans by telling the Persians of a secret trail which let the Persians outflank the Spartans. 300 Spartan fought 150,000 Persian for 7 days but eventually every Spartan, down to the last man died in the fight.

We as Lineman believe in the same things as the Spartans, they believed in loyalty and being trustworthy. Linemen do the same thing; we trust our lives with each other every day. The Spartans believed in commitment and mental toughness, we look for the same things in our peers. If you don’t have commitment and mental toughness in this profession you will never make it as a lineman. We too are disgraced just like the Spartans when we lose our shield by not being our brother’s keeper out on the job.

If you are a lineman you are forever tied to these words, “you are your brother’s keeper.” You have heard it and you probably have said it, but do you really live it? Be a Spartan on your crew use your shield to protect yourself and the man standing next to you. Better yet talk to your guys on the crew, get everyone in the phalanx formation so everybody is using their shields to win the battle against someone getting killed or hurt. This is truly the way to be your brother’s keeper. Pass it on to the younger guys coming up, tell them what it means, better yet show them what it means. It is a tradition that has tied all linemen together since someone first strapped on a pair of hooks. It is definitely a tradition worth continuing.

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