Written in Blood

The Lineman Life Podcast

I was hanging out in a Facebook group for #Lineman a couple of weeks ago, if you have never had the experience I suggest you try it out. In this group, #Lineman post things that run the scale from funny to ridiculous. The group I’m in has it’s share of trolls. A troll in a Facebook group is a person who posts inflammatory or ridiculous things, just to see what kind of reaction they can get. Just like a troll hiding under the bridge, when they do come out and post something it is almost never positive.

In this group I saw a post from someone that had a picture that depicted a Safety person as an idiot, like they didn’t know what they were doing or didn’t care about the well-being of employees. He went on to say that a Safety person’s whole reason for being was to make a Lineman’s job hard. They really didn’t care about people only sticking to the rules. I was a little shocked, who has an attitude like that? What kind of Safety person did he have?

I thought back to my career as a Lineman. I thought about the safety man that was my safety guy from the time I started, until I had been a #Lineman for about 20 years. His name was Jim. Jim was a big guy, he was about 6’3, weighed about 225 lbs. He always sported a crew cut haircut. He wore a green hardhat that didn’t have a scratch on it, the hardhat glistened in the sun and the rumor was he waxed it to keep it shiny. I don’t know about how he was raised, but he could have very well come from a military background. Jim, or “Big Jim” as we called him was borderline drill sergeant. He was straight to the point and was a stickler for the “Safety rules.” Boy, you better not mess up on the rules or you were in trouble. He was always so serious.

Big Jim used to come around on occasion for a visit to the crew to check on everything. He would start by going through the bins on the trucks just like he was doing a locker inspection, just like in the move Full Metal Jacket. If he found a chain saw or saw blade with no cover he would toss it on the ground, continue to inspect. Tools worn out or needing repair, big problem, remove it from the truck, toss it on the ground. Hooks with no gaff guards, you knew you were dead. After he was done with the bin inspection came the interrogation on why there were no blade guards or why faulty tools were still on the truck, why no gaff guards?

He would watch the crew and critique every move, the cover we were using, was the line grounded properly, were we using the hand-line instead of coming up and down to get material, one of his pet peeves was not using the hand-line to pull up material. “No see-sawing that bucket guys,” was one of his favorite things to say and I bet I heard him say it every single time he came out, must have been at least 50 times.

Sometime in the early 80’s we made the transition from hot stick to gloving. Our primary voltage was 13.8/23.9. After we did the classroom portion of the training, we had a transition period for a couple of weeks, just to get used to gloving only. A couple of weeks into the transition “Big Jim” rolled up on our job. We were so nervous on the crew when he showed up we were having a hard time working. “Big Jim” said we didn’t have enough cover, the foreman sent someone back to the barn to get more rubber to make sure “Big Jim” was happy. “Big Jim” wanted it done right. The job which should have taken about 2 hours ended up taking all day because everyone was scared of messing up with “Big Jim” watching. I was so exhausted at the end of the day I barely made it home.

On another occasion we were working on a job changing out a transformer. Our safety rules required that we chock the wheels and ground the bucket truck whenever the bucket was in the air. To get to the transformer we had to put the bucket facing against traffic on the side of a busy road. All of a sudden I hear the Lineman in the bucket yell out, “here comes Big Jim!” The foreman starts yelling at me, the truck is not grounded, hurry up and do it before he sees it. Big Jim pulled up, front bumper to front bumper with the bucket truck. Since I was at the back of the truck and hidden from his view I quickly and skillfully grounded the truck to the pole ground while he was getting out of his car. I was so proud of myself for doing it undetected. “Big Jim” walked straight to the back of the truck, he looked at me and said, “I saw you grounding the truck; you guys didn’t have it done did you?” Busted! To this day I never figured out how he saw me, maybe his Safety man x-ray vision or ESP skills came into play because there was no way he saw me ground that truck.

As I matured into a seasoned Lineman I got the chance to be around “Big Jim” more, once on a storm restoration trip I got a chance to sit down and talk to him. Since I had been there a while, I was feeling more comfortable in my role. I asked him, “Jim, why are you always so hard and ridged on us when it comes down to safety rules? Some of the guys think you are a real hard ass.” He slowly turned his head towards me; he looked a little astonished about the question I asked him. He said, “You know Spooner, every one of those rules we have in that safety manual was “written in blood.” I have been here a lot longer than you, and I personally helped write some of those rules after someone was injured or killed. I never want to see another employee or his family go through that kind of pain again. So I really don’t care if people think I’m a hard ass, I do it because I care for people and their families.”

I still remember that conversation 25 years ago and I try to put into practice what Big Jim taught me. On occasion I do a safety observation on one of the crews. I always try to come across as caring, that is the reason I am out doing observations in the first place. Now that I have almost 40 years of experience, I have also seen many people hurt or injured on the job. I too have helped write new safety rules that were a product of someone getting hurt or dying. I also have witnessed the pain that employees and families go through when someone gets hurt, killed or injured.

Today, I am quick to pull out the “written in blood” phrase and explain to people that I am not here to get anyone in trouble, only to help everyone go home safe at the end of the day. Is everyone always happy I’m there? No, no one wants to be told they are not doing something right, but I don’t really care, I know why I am doing it.

If you are a safety professional, or anyone doing a safety observation you can learn many lessons from “Big Jim” just like I did. In this industry we tend to get new safety people that have little experience and come across as being arrogant or a know it all. To them it’s all about the “rules.” Lineman can sniff these types of individuals out a mile away. These are the types of people that give all Safety Professionals a bad name and cause Lineman like the guy on Facebook to group all safety people into one basket.

If you know someone like this I challenge you to remember that every rule you go to enforce was written in blood, real people’s blood. The Lineman game can be very unforgiving at times. Don’t be a rule enforcer; you have to be in a place that you genuinely care about people. If you can’t do that you will never have any credibility in this business.

Before you step out of that vehicle or walk over to talk about something you don’t like, repeat to yourself, “I care about this employee and their family,” this should put you in the right frame of mind to address something.

Will Lineman always like you or appreciate you? Maybe not, but if you have it in your heart to care about people and their family’s it really doesn’t matter what they think.

If you can do this, “Big Jim” would be proud of you.

Aloha, David

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