The “Crossroads” of Training

By Kyle Hoffman, COLT Manager

The powerline industry currently sits at a “crossroads” with the magnitude to shape the future for all who work within the trade, much like those investing in electricity back in the 1890s did when they chose Nikola Tesla’s AC voltage theory over Thomas Edison’s DC voltage at the World's Fair in Chicago.  Today it’s difficult to imagine a world without electricity for we have all come to value its capabilities to power our homes, businesses, and schools across the U.S. and provide those of us in the industry with solid career opportunities. It’s fairly remarkable to look back over the history of electricity and see how far things have evolved over time, not only in application and use, but the overall approach to safety as well. Today we find ourselves sitting in the driver’s seat, looking out the windshield at the road ahead. It is my belief that the current situation we find ourselves in provides us with a unique opportunity where we could possibly put electrical contacts and other major incidents in our rear-view mirror. How could such a feat actually be accomplished? By cooperative leaders driving our workforce down a new path that has the power to change the course of our industry for generations to come, similar to the way Tesla did with the creation of the AC motor. 

Once the world understood the utilization of AC voltage, the birth of the lineworker came with it.  Lineworkers were needed to construct and maintain what is now known as the world’s greatest modern marvel: the electric grid. An amazing infrastructure in the U.S. that consists of over 200,000 miles of transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution lines, all of which have been built over the last 130 years. Being a lineworker during the inception years required someone with a unique mindset. It required workers who were willing to take on the immense challenge of working with a mostly unknown and unforgiving invisible phenomenon, without a true understanding of how to avoid the harsh consequences that came along with mistakes. The world desired a life beyond the fall of darkness that electricity could provide, but its providers would endure countless serious incidents while doing so. Lineworkers in the early years would lose their lives at a rate of one for every three working in the field. Though linework has become a much safer occupation over the years, we still have families grieving the loss of loved ones while others lose limbs, resulting in loss of pride and dignity in providing for their families. There is still much work to be done across the industry to reach the point where we can eliminate electrical contacts and major incidents.

For the last 25 to 35 years, Ohio’s distribution cooperatives and other organizations in the industry have been blessed to have the longevity of the baby boomer generation working for them. A generation whose loyalty, dedication, hard work, and craftsmanship has carried the electric industry to where it is today. But as retirement draws near for these stalwarts, we find ourselves staring down the barrel of a soon-to-be mass turnover. However, a new generation of lineworkers finds themselves at our doorstep, ready to carry on the trade of building and maintaining the electric power grid into the future. With this changing of the guard, a unique opportunity presents itself to give this next generation something that many of those before them were not afforded: advanced formal training.

A stone’s throw from the geographical center of Ohio is where the Central Ohio Lineworker Training (COLT) training facility is located, just outside the village of Mount Gilead. This state-of-the-art lineworker training facility is our very own modern marvel here in Ohio that our cooperatives are extremely proud of, and for good reason. Here, apprentices and journeyman lineworkers come to learn up-to-date industry-safe work practices for linework through hands-on application and knowledge-based instruction to advance a safety-first approach for the work they conduct in the field. The facility consists of 16 acres of outside poles and lines, a substation, a complex underground open-loop system, two classrooms, and a truck barn that houses four bucket trucks and a digger truck, along with all the associated tools, equipment, and materials needed for the electric distribution line trade. The crown jewel on location is the 60x120’ indoor training facility that has allowed us at COLT to conduct year-round training, never again having to depend on the weather to conduct high-level training. Inside the facility are 19 poles that hold both single and three-phase lines and equipment. Interactive, hands-on workstations have been constructed on the interior walls, such as transformers for building banks or single-phase services, single and three-phase metering applications, underground utilities that mimic a URD loop-fed system, and a voltage regulator for the process of zeroing and bypassing, along with much more apparatus, equipment, and device controls utilized on our systems. If there is a need to do it in distribution linework, it can be learned in the indoor facility. Both inside and out, the facility is energized to 120/208V, which minimizes the dangers of high-voltage and allows COLT to be the place of learning it was intended to be. The approach to learning is one that anticipates and accepts that mistakes are going to be made, but without the hazards of high-voltage. Oftentimes, the best lessons learned are those where we’ve been allowed to try and fail without risk of injury. When you can allow people to learn from their mistakes in a controlled environment that includes a mix of experimentation, they can take those lessons learned and convert them into acceptable safe work practices in the field where it matters most. 

But it takes more than a high-tech training facility to properly develop our workforce. Good instruction still stands as the single most important factor when it comes to developing apprentice lineworkers and we feel that our four full-time COLT instructors stand as some of the best in the business. Having 12 effective, one-week classes spaced over a four-year period also plays an important role. Over those four years, apprentices are exposed to a multitude of hands-on and knowledge-based work practices and procedures where competency and understanding is observed. It is much like the construction of a house where you begin with building a solid foundation, followed by the floors, walls, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and so on, each being done in such a way that the processes work together rather than hinder the overall construction. As an apprentice works their way through the apprenticeship, their previous instruction is reiterated through their current instruction, and their current instruction is a pathway to their future instruction.

The formal portion of an apprenticeship is just one piece in the overall development of the apprentice lineworker. Applying the learned knowledge and hands-on skills back on the jobsite is vital to the process, both for the worker and the organization. Many of Ohio’s distribution cooperatives run a four-year apprenticeship comprised of 8,000 “OJT” (on-the-job training) hours in the field while there are only 600 “RTI” (related technical instruction) hours spent in the formal COLT training environment. Therefore, having a solid method for tracking the advancement of an apprentice back at the organization is crucial to the overall process. Here in Ohio, we have the “Apprentice Development Best Practices Program” that acts as a guide and is designed to remove barriers that hinder the development of the apprentice lineworker by helping cooperatives install and maintain a semi-formal structure for development. The intent is to provide best practices, tools, and ideas to help cooperative apprentices reach their full potential, work safely and efficiently, and improve the safety of all workers. The Apprentice Development Best Practices Program is designed be a checks and balances process that provides the apprentice and everyone involved in their training with a roadmap that ensures they are conducting the appropriate work at the appropriate time while documenting progression through peer observation in the field. A full circle approach to build great apprentices is “Learn, Apply, Observe, Advance.”

Few would argue with the effectiveness of a high-quality, formal, hands-on training program, but it must not be limited to new workers entering the trade. Continuing education is required in many occupational fields, so why would we not follow suit in such a hazardous trade as linework?  Journeyman refresher training was added to the COLT curriculum to provide those currently working in the field with such continuing education opportunities. As the industry improves as a whole, safe work practices continually evolve and the curriculum in the apprenticeship program is constantly measured against such advances and adjusted as needed. But what about those who never were afforded the opportunity of a formal apprenticeship? Or those who completed an apprenticeship years ago, prior to the advancement of critical safe work practices? Our experienced workforce deserves the opportunity to gather with their peers to learn about these new processes and procedures in a low-stress environment so they may continue to lead our new generation of lineworkers in the right direction. Having the opportunity to advance their knowledge in the industry provides them a greater ownership for developing apprentices under their tutelage. The Journeyman Refresher Program (JRP) offered through COLT consists of six (6) three-day classes, all conducted over the course of a single year, and is designed to be refreshed at seven-year intervals. COLT’s JRP program layout helps to ensure that seasoned lineworkers will stay up to date with the ever-changing landscape of our industry throughout their entire careers.

As the overall utility industry (electric, fiber, communication) continues to grow, so do opportunities to hire workers with related experience. These experienced workers can sometimes competently perform some, many, or even all of the tasks performed by cooperative lineworkers, providing significant cost savings while immediately becoming productive on the crew and on call. But, to reinforce the article in the last newsletter, a journeyman lineworker is only a journeyman lineworker as defined by one organization with a listed set of skills. In other words, they often do not have the same skills as a different organization would expect a journeyman to have. Due diligence is required to ensure that the outside personnel we bring onto our line crews does not undermine the safe work practices that our co-ops have worked so hard to establish in the field, and it’s also required by OSHA. Assessing previous work experience, knowledge, and work practices is critical in the evaluation process to verify competency in the skills needed at each specific cooperative. We must also ensure they fit into the safety culture by verifying and documenting their skills, abilities, and character in their first several months on the job, also required by OSHA. How careful are we to protect and maintain the positive safety culture that has taken us years to create? Hiring someone so that they can immediately go “on call” can be a slippery slope if we avoid due process with just one employee.

This year at COLT, we are on pace to train over 150 apprentices and provide continuing education JRP classes to roughly 40 journeyman lineworkers. Providing effective training to cooperative employees helps ensure your workers have a true understanding of the theory and application of safe work practices, and that begins with understanding the intent and purpose of critical safe work practices. Being a lineworker myself, I can relate to the challenge and idea that the rules were written to do nothing more than make the work we do harder! Although it can certainly feel that way at times, especially when we learn a new process or rule, it takes an open mind to understand that every rule is written with the intent to prevent injury. Once we come to terms with this truth, we can move forward in the understanding of how the rules can benefit us and our families through injury prevention. Work rules, policies, and procedures are in place not to hinder, but to help, guide, and protect workers. At COLT, we don’t “tell” lineworkers what to do. Rather, our objective is to come alongside them, guide them, and equip them with the tools, resources, and knowledge they need to make educated decisions every day in any situation. Accidents occur when we don’t properly understand safe work practices or the potential consequences of deviation from established practices. Formal training at all levels can provide the “why” behind the “what.” At the crossroads we’re currently at, it’s clear the future of safe linework is providing formal training opportunities to all our lineworkers – a high quality apprenticeship, continuing education, and a strong support structure back at the cooperative. This is what I believe is the pathway to raising up “A New Generation of Lineworkers” who are committed to the pursuit of zero electrical contacts and major incidents. Let’s be intentional and push forward together!

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