No Need to Knock on Wood: Fall Protection for Climbing Utility Poles Safely

Utility workers have the important responsibility of providing and maintaining the electric and power lines that people so often take for granted.


By Clifford Petty

Utility workers have the important responsibility of providing and maintaining the electric and power lines that people so often take for granted. This job can, obviously, be dangerous, with workers putting their lives on the line daily performing tasks such as climbing wood utility poles to build new lines and make necessary repairs.

The use of fall protection equipment is recognized as the only means for preventing falls from wood poles in the electrical utility industry. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) partnered with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to form the OSHA Strategic Partnership (OSP) in 2010. The committee developed a best work practice titled "Safety at Heights-Fall Protection on Wood Poles" in effect since March 31, 2011. This best work practice is written specifically for the mitigation of fall hazards on wood poles through the use of fall restricting equipment.

As any lineman knows, climbing a wood pole is a skill that can take time to develop. It doesn't matter, however, if the lineman is an apprentice or a journeyman; everyone is susceptible to a fall. A combination of three key methods is used to help prevent falls from wood poles: fall restrict, work positioning and fall arrest.

Before climbing with any of the above methods, linemen should visually inspect the wood pole to ensure its integrity. This involves looking for cracks, holes, rot and obstructions. Some utility companies require a hammer test to be performed-when a hammer is struck against the pole, it should sound solid. This indicates the pole does not have interior rot. With obstructions such as vines or equipment, workers must be aware that climbing the pole and performing work could take more time and present added challenges.

Fall Restrict

Fall restrict equipment provides a limited fall arrest function by using the climber's body weight to mechanically cinch and lock a device around the pole to stop a fall in the event of a cut-out-when a worker's gaff loses contact with the pole. This equipment provides a means to restrict a fall on the bare section of a pole where a climber could free fall more than two feet. Some fall restrict equipment is designed to work on slippery and ice covered poles. Look for the Z259.14 AB label to ensure the device is certified and tested to work in these conditions. Modern fall restrict equipment offers advantages such as interchangeable straps for different size poles. New lightweight designs make climbing easier, and advancements in equipment adjustment makes using the fall restrict easier than ever before. Most experts consider the use of fall restrict equipment as the standard safe work practice for pole climbing in North America.

Work Positioning

Work positioning lanyards are used to secure a worker over an obstruction so the worker can remain at a work location with both hands free. Work positioning equipment cannot be rigged so that a climber can free fall more than two feet. This equipment, used in conjunction with fall-restrict equipment, comprises a fall restricting system. This system is how a climber crosses over and under obstructions without being disconnected from the pole.

Fall Arrest

On poles with significant obstructions where linemen need more mobility, vertical lifeline systems allow the worker to free climb without a second positioning strap. A wood pole fall arrest system works by securing a rope-positioning tube and dielectric lifeline at the top of a pole. The worker raises the tube from the ground and drops it over a suitable anchorage point near the top of the pole using an extendable hot stick tool inserted into one end of the tube in order to manipulate it into position. While the hot stick is still extended, it is used to capture an eye in the lifeline, which is then retracted to the ground. A carabineer is used to choke the lifeline back at the top of the pole. A rope grab with an integrated shock absorbing lanyard is connected to the dorsal D-ring of a full body harness and lifeline, allowing the climber to move safely into position around virtually any obstruction. This fall arrest system provides easy, fast climbing without requiring connections, disconnections and adjustments each time a lineman passes an obstacle on the pole.

Keep in mind fall protection equipment for wood pole climbing should be:

  • Durable,
  • Comfortable,
  • Versatile,
  • Easy to use and maintain, and
  • Compliant with applicable standards.

Using proper techniques and fall protection equipment to ascend and descend wood utility poles can help promote a culture of safety while also making sure linemen are working efficiently and effectively. The utilities industry presents workers with many unique challenges, but with the right fall protection solutions, linemen won't have to knock on wood every time they scale a pole.

About the author: Clifford Petty is the electrical utilities specialist for the Americas with Capital Safety, a designer and manufacturer of fall protection and rescue products including the DBI-SALA and PROTECTA brands. For more information, visit

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