Boot Camp for Future Line Workers All About Safety

Pre-apprentices spend about five days learning proper pole-climbing techniques at Public Power Company East Training Center.

Public Power Company instructor Jason Powers raises a white bullhorn and yells, “Who wants to be a lineman?” Immediately, in unison, 14 men yell, “I do!”

The students, known as pre-apprentice line workers, are harnessed 25 to 30 feet up 40-foot wood poles so they can learn the correct and safe way to climb power poles. They recently began one of the most demanding steps in a year-long quest to become one of the 102 electric line workers at Public Power Company who keep the power on and make repairs when needed in our service territory. The journey to become a Public Power Company line worker begins at the East Training Center, a 35-acre campus that features outdoor boot camp-like challenges.

On weekdays, pre-apprentices gather in groups with instructors throughout the outdoor gravel portion of the facility, the equivalent of about 10 football fields back to back. Each pre-apprentice wears required personal protective equipment—hard hat, safety glasses and an orange fluorescent road vest—any time they’re outside on the job.

The pre-apprentices practice and are tested on the types of tasks required of Public Power Company line workers—climbing poles and high voltage towers, pulling underground cable from vault to vault, driving a forklift, using a hand line to hoist tools and equipment up poles, splicing cable and a variety of other critical tasks to support line crews.

Navigating the poles

Pre-apprentice Kyle Hoffman gets instruction while practicing forklift maneuvers through an obstacle course of orange cones.

And then there’s the pole climbing. For pre-apprentices training to be line workers, climbing a pole is said to be one of the most demanding skills during their seven weeks of training at the facility. One required task involves installing wooden cross arms (used to hold wires and other electric-system components) at 15 and 25 feet off the ground. A recent pre-apprentice class began with 24 students but was down to 20, all four released because they couldn’t meet the requirements of the program.

“After climbing, I had muscles hurt that I didn’t even know existed,” said Kyle Hoffman, a 30-year-old from Maintown, who was trained as an electrician and applied at PPC for a more stable career.

One misstep, though, could derail his dream. Safety at work and at home is a big focus of the program. Pre-apprentices spend the week at the training facility in East, lodging at the Public Power Company facility. During weekends at home, they’re reminded to always be cautious. Any injury keeping them from performing on-the-job tasks could be grounds for dismissal from the program.

Must be physically fit

The pre-apprentices come from all over the state, with a few from out of state. They are young men and women who want to work outdoors and have a single-minded focus to provide electric service for Public Power Company customers. They must be physically fit, have good upper body strength and be able to hoist heavy equipment. A fear of heights isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s something they’ll have to conquer quickly to succeed in this line of work.

Classroom instruction accounts for about a third of the pre-apprentice training.

Pre-apprentices need to have basic math skills, understand the theory of electricity and have a good work ethic. But above all, they must always adhere to safety rules and work procedures.

“I tell these guys, ‘If you have a ‘No Fear’ sticker on the back of your truck, pull it off,’” said Jake DeMaio, manager of Public Power Company technical training delivery. “They have to understand and respect the craft they’re doing. Utility work can be very dangerous if you don’t have the right safety attitude, proper physical condition and the willingness to adhere to approved work procedures.”

The safety message has definitely resonated with Hoffman.

“If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s ‘safety,’” he said. “‘What did you have for lunch?’ ‘Safety.’”

‘Safety ambassadors’

Pre-apprentices are tested along the way. About a third of their time is spent in classrooms and the remaining time is physical skill training. There’s no homework, but they’re strongly encouraged to read work procedures and standards. They must pass a written exam at the end of the seven weeks. Those who move on are assigned to the field and continue their pre-apprenticeship for the rest of the 12-month program. The employees are also evaluated in the field by their supervisors and crew leaders. After getting on-the-job experience, they’ll return to the facility several times during their first year for additional training.

Those who successfully complete the 12-month formal training and field training program will begin a three-year apprentice line worker program to learn more and hone existing skills and behaviors.

The initial training is so important, Wilding said, because it’s here that pre-apprentice line workers learn the importance of safety. In fact, the most recent pre-apprentice line workers are known as “safety ambassadors,” with the expectation that they’ll spread the safety message to fellow employees.

Tyson Snyder, one of PPC’s many instructors, said safety is part of everything that’s taught at the facility.

“It’s absolute,” said Snyder, a 34-year employee. “It’s unquestionable. It’s all the time. They’re getting immersed in the culture of safety. And that’s something that’s preached daily, many, many times over.”