Make Each Day Our First Day of Work

For an electrical lineman, there is nothing you remember more than the first time you put your hands on energized primary.

By Matt Forck, CSP & JLW

“I can change out any buck arm corner with just my rubber gloves and a gut,” bragged a very confident journey lineman.

For an electrical lineman, there is nothing you remember more than the first time you put your hands on energized primary. This practice, gloving primary voltages of either 4,000 volts or 12,000 volts has been around for several decades as a way for electrical crews to perform work on energized wires without taking a power outage. That experience for me, touching electrical wires, came in March 1996. I had just completed three weeks of third stage apprentice training and I was qualified to glove primary voltages at 4 KV, or 4,000 volts. My first job as I returned from training was to change out a three-phase switch that served a manufacturing company in Kirksville, Missouri.

I remember the day very well. We did it by the book. We did all of the big things and all of the small exactly by the safety rules -- it was like driving 18 mph in a 20 mph school zone. I inspected my rubber gloves and performed an air test on them -- just like they taught me in training. The crew and I inspected all of the rubber goods such as the line hose (often called guts) and the rubber blankets (these serve as protection, allowing a line worker to be isolated from both energized sources and ground potential). We held a long and thorough tailgate session where we reviewed the hazards of the job, the safety rules, any special precautions and any energy source controls. With the prep work completed, and under the watchful eye of a great journey lineworker in the bucket next to me, we went in the air and began to jumper out the first switch. If you have never done this before, it is the equivalent of having a driver’s permit and getting on the interstate for the first time -- one is very careful!

But how do you drive down an interstate today? Cell phone in one ear? Maybe eating a breakfast sandwich? One hand on the wheel -- or in some cases no hands on the wheel! Somewhere between how I worked this first primary voltage assignment and the veteran journey line worker who used just one gut is a level of comfort that is unhealthy for extreme hazards such as gloving primary voltage. How have we become so comfortable?

Henry Molaison was born on February 26, 1926, in Hartford, Connecticut. By all accounts he had a normal childhood. But, at about 10 years old, he began to suffer from seizures. After a series of medical tests, doctors concluded that a bicycle crash that Henry had a few years early caused a head injury that resulted in epileptic seizures. The bad news for Henry is that as he grew, these seizures got increasingly worse. They grew so bad that they greatly impacted his quality of life.

After countless medical exams, Henry was finally referred to William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon. Scoville ran a series of intense tests and believed he determined that Henry’s epilepsy was driven by a particular region of his brain. Through these tests, Scoville understood the seizures were originating in Henry’s left and right medial temporal lobes. Not only did Dr. Scoville locate where he believed the seizures were being triggered, he suggested a radical treatment -- brain surgery to remove part of Henry’s brain. Henry’s life was so greatly impacted by the seizures that he agreed to the surgery. On August 25, 1953, at the age of 27, Henry Molaison had part of his brain removed.

By all accounts the surgery was a great success. The seizures stopped. Henry’s long-term memory was intact and he could recall his past experiences, skills and training. But, the surgery came with one huge unexpected side effect -- Henry lost his short-term memory. He couldn’t remember anyone new, or remember at dinner what he had for lunch. In short, each day was a new experience for Henry -- one that he never lived before, even if he had the exact same day the day before!

So what if we were like Henry? What if we were journeyman -- knowing our job, the safety rules and procedures, and were greatly skilled at our craft? But, what if we were also like Henry in that each day was 100 percent new. It would be like driving for the first time. Or, for an electrical line worker, it would be like gloving primary for the first time. Being like Henry we would have the skills to perform the work but also have the caution as if it was our first day.

Here are four tips to work each job as if it’s your first day:

· Follow all rules -- it may sound very simple, but the fact is that over time, whether driving a car or gloving primary, we tend to not follow all of the rules. It may be driving 77 mph in a 70 mph speed zone or failing to inspect all of your rubber cover before starting work. Getting back to the basic rules allows you to take a step back and make it feel like your first day.

· Plan -- after some time doing a job, planning gets lax. After all, we have done this work before. In electrical work, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires a formal job plan that discusses job hazards, safe work rules, any special precautions, all energy source controls and PPE. I’d suggest that detailing each of these would put you back to near your first day.

· Assume your son or daughter will work there some day -- In my time as a safety professional for a utility, I worked with two father-son tandems. And I witnessed that the father’s perception of safety changed when his son joined the crew. Our habits and practices are part of our work culture. The rules you follow, or don’t, are witnessed and duplicated by others. Assume your son or daughter will work there some day -- and set a firm example of safety compliance.

· Teach safety -- Whether you are working with an apprentice, or just a fellow journeyman, always teach safety. Teaching, in this case, means you share ideas, become involved with safety committees, ask questions and more. Teaching allows you to relearn, and grow ever more safe.

Is today your first day? That depends on your attitude and not your time on a job.

Matt Forck is a certified safety professional (CSP) and a former journey electrical lineman with over two decades of experience in the hazardous field of electricity distribution. Matt is founder and director of SafeStrat, a boutique safety keynote and safety consulting services organization, providing dynamic and tailored presentations, training and consulting services to clients throughout the United States. Matt resides in Columbia, Missouri, with is wife and two children. Check out Matt’s latest book just for Utilities, What Utility Safety Leaders Do. Learn more at

Matt Forck, CSP & JLW

Safestrat, LLC, a Keynote & Safety Consulting Services Organization

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