Lineworkers Bring Power To The People, Without A Net
Three years ago, federal officials called it the most dangerous job in America. The number of people killed while climbing cell phone towers has declined since then, but working on steel towers remains one of the nation's most dangerous jobs, right up there with commercial fishing.
What's it like to work a hundred feet in the air without a net?
KUOW's John Ryan found out from some high–wire workers installing power lines high above Seattle's Ship Canal. It's part one of our "Danger At Work" series.
Lineworkers with Seattle City Light are replacing some old copper wires. They want to keep up with the city's increasing demand for electricity. These wires form the main power lines between downtown and North Seattle. They cross the Ship Canal here, between two giant steel towers.
Much of the work on this job takes place way up there, and lineworkers get there the old–fashioned way: they climb.
Sound: (Harness hardware clinks)
Phil Wittenberg puts on his climbing harness. It's a nylon harness like rock climbers might use, but much burlier. Straps go around his waist and thighs, over his shoulders and across his chest.
Wittenberg is the last of four lineworkers this morning to head very carefully up the tower. He grabs and steps on steel rungs that poke out from the northwest leg of the tower. The oversized hooks and rings on his safety harness jangle as he climbs.
On this job, the climbers don't use their harnesses until they get to the top — that's about eight minutes of unprotected climbing later.
John Ryan: "How high up would you say they are right now?"
Jensen: "Right now they're at about 180 feet."
Marshall Jensen is the crew chief for these lineworkers.
Jensen: "They climb up one leg of the tower on little bolts, step bolts they're called. Once they're up there, then they can belt off. But all the way up it's a free climb."
Ryan: "It's all up to their hands and feet to make sure they don't fall."
Jensen: "Exactly, yeah. So far, no one's gotten hurt. This is the third year of the project and we haven't had any injuries, and everything's going real good."
Once the workers have finished the climb, they clip in for safety.
The climbing crew has a two–way radio to communicate with the crew on the ground. Down there, it booms out of a big truck loudspeaker so everyone can hear it, even over the occasional boat horn.
All workplaces in this country have to be safe. That's the law of the land. But above the land, the law has loopholes. It's perfectly legal for trained electrical lineworkers to make these daredevil climbs. In fact, it's the industry standard.
Seattle City Light, Bonneville Power Administration, Puget Sound Energy — they all let their lineworkers climb transmission towers without safety lines. And City Light tower climber Mark Iverson likes it that way.
Iverson: "It is fun; it's a lot of fun. It's exciting, you know, it's risky. Most people look at it and say, boy, I don't know about that, and we take that for granted, you know? It's a little bit of a thrill."
Ryan: "Do you get some adrenaline going up on the climb?"
Iverson: "Sometimes, yeah, sometimes. There's a little nerves involved, but you get comfortable with it, too."
Comfortable is not the same as casual. Iverson says he keeps a death grip on the tower as he's climbing.
Iverson: "Sure, you're hanging on good. Three points of contact at all time, so two feet and one hand, or something. You're not casual about it."
Lineworkers do hard, physical labor with specialized skills. They make good money, often six figures. Not just anybody can do it. It takes several years of apprenticing and working on much smaller, wooden poles before they can work on these tall towers. Barry Leaf is a City Light lineworker.
Leaf: "After you've done it for so long, you just kinda do it. The fear kinda leaves you after a while, pretty much after you're out of your apprenticeship stage. Sometimes you climb something a little bit higher, it could get scary."
Ryan: "Like this?"
Leaf: "Like this, yeah. Our normal wood poles that we climb are roughly around 55 feet. This is 196 feet."
Lineworker Mark Iverson says the days of free climbing are numbered.
Iverson: "That's coming. I can't swear to it, but it looks like it. All the other industries that we watch are changing. Steelworkers are belted in all the time now. They used to free climb and walk I–beams like all the pictures you've seen. We don't have to right now."
In other industries, federal law mandates the use of harnesses or other safety equipment any time employees are more than a few feet in the air. The law was extended to cover roofers and other homebuilders just last month (June).
Wally Reardon was a cell–phone tower climber in New York in the 1990s. That's when the federal government mandated fall protection for anyone working or climbing on communication towers.
Reardon: "We hated it with a passion."
Reardon says, at first, he found the new, safer way of climbing extremely tedious.
Reardon: "It slowed down work immensely, and on top of that, a lot of the climbers have a lot of bravado, you know? We were attracted to that job because we loved the thrill of the job. We loved to take risks. We loved to show off. It was a test of bravery to climb these structures."
The new regulation changed all that.
Reardon: "It took away your talent and your bravery, your courage. It was an insult to your courage, I guess is the best way to put it."
Reardon says he got used to the slower, safer climbing, and he changed his attitude about fall protection. Shoulder injuries eventually forced him to stop working on towers. He went to college and became a safety activist. He now runs the Workers at Height Safety and Health Initiative in Syracuse.
Reardon: "With the safety equipment that we have, there's no reason why every climber should not be connected to the structure."
The loophole that lets lineworkers free climb probably isn't going away any time soon. Federal officials did propose to strengthen some safety requirements for electrical lineworkers in 2005, but the proposal would still allow free climbing.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said at the time it believes free climbing is safe if the employee is using his or her hands to hold on. Six years later, that proposal is still working its way through the federal bureaucracy.
Last year, two workers on the East Coast fell to their deaths from electrical transmission towers. Seven workers in six states fell to their deaths from cell phone and communication towers last year. The safety record for electrical lineworkers in Washington state is much better. In the past decade, they've reported no deaths from falling.
I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.
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