August 26, 2022 7 min read
When it comes to the most dangerous jobs, telecommunications and electrical line workers are pretty high on the list. Working on power lines has routinely been in the top 10 most lethal professions, making that list as recently as 2018. Telecommunications line workers have fewer fatalities but a higher injury rate and over double the deaths of all US jobs.
These professionals face a range of hazards as they install or repair lines and other equipment at ground level or high up in the air from bucket trucks, often in terrible weather. Adequate safety procedures and personal protective equipment — including the best lineman hard hat type and class — is crucial.
This blog reviews the biggest risks facing telecom and utilities line workers, plus the OSHA rules and performance standards that ensure lineman hard hats offer enough protection.
On June 15, 2021, electric lineman William Ziegenfelder was killed by an "apparent electrocution" while working on power lines after a severe thunderstorm in Waldo, FL. Eulogized by his loved ones as “a family man and a hard-working man,” Ziegenfelder was survived by his wife and 11 children.
Later that September, two Pike Electric linemen died after being electrocuted “while assisting Alabama Power with storm restoration efforts” in Adger, AL. And one man died, and another was injured by electricity while "working on guy wires on a power pole" in Middleton, Idaho, on April 26, 2022.
As these and many other news reports attest, line work can be dangerous. And while the possibility of electrocution might be the most lethal hazard, it isn’t the only one. It’s highly physical work that causes many strains, sprains, and repetitive motion injuries. And high falls are also fatal risks in addition to electrocution from high- and medium-voltage power lines. As Linemen Central, an industry career and training site, puts it:
“What makes the line trade so dangerous is the combination of high voltage power and heights. In addition to these constant threats, mother nature is constantly changing the environment.”
People expect their electricity and communication services to work 24/7, and line workers are tasked with making that happen despite challenging conditions. Paul Maudlin, a professional engineer who worked in the energy industry for decades, wrote anappreciation for the profession that includes a eulogy to a line worker who was killed by a high-current electrical arc that ignited a high-pressure stream of hydraulic fluid:
“[E]very so often some event comes along to remind me of the young man David. The most recent being the horrific storm damage and widespread outages in the Southeast U.S. […]
When the television news cameras pan across the destruction, take a moment to remember the utility workers who are putting things together again and making life livable. And remember their families.”
The death and injury statistics for line installers and repairers
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies all line workers, aka “line installers and repairers,” into two groups:
A 2018 BLS report assessing “Workplace hazards facing line installers and repairers” found that both occupations face similar hazards, as both work to install or fix equipment on high utility poles using bucket trucks and harnesses. But electrical power line installers and repairers faced a greater possibility of electrocution and suffered about double the fatalities of their telecom counterparts in a five-year period.
Nevertheless, both jobs are far riskier than average. Telecom line workers had 2.4 to 2.9 times the fatality rate of all other US occupations, while electrical line workers had about 6.1 times the death rate. When it comes to nonfatal injuries, the numbers reversed; telecom workers suffered about 319 injuries per 10,000 workers in a five-year period, while electrical workers experienced 188. Both of these totals were significantly higher than the average for all US professions of about 100.
The causes of injuries also varied based on whether they were fatal or nonfatal. Unsurprisingly, electrocution was a huge factor in lethal outcomes, causing:
The other most significant causes of death among both types of line workers were “Transportation incidents” (one-quarter) and “falls to a lower level” (one-fifth).
Regarding nonfatal injuries, the top issue, by a wide margin, was “sprains, strains, tears,” which represented 45%. Otherwise, only “soreness, pain” exceeded 10% in a given year in OSHA’s five-year study.
Thus, while line workers face numerous injury hazards due to the physically demanding nature of their jobs, falling from a significant height, transportation incidents, and electrocution are the main risks of death. These stats explain why dedicated safety procedures and personal protective equipment (PPE) standards are required in the industry.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces various rules for safety procedures and equipment, including the personal protective equipment (PPE) employers must provide. These rules are found in Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (29 CFR, aka CFR Title 29), which includes numerous industry standards.
The 29 CFR standard 1910.268 governs the safety rules for "Telecommunications" workers, including line workers, whereas the “General Requirements” of 1910.132 apply to electrical line workers. There is an exception, however, explained by OSHA in a standard interpretation issued in 1992: the telecom rules for safety harnesses and other fall-protection equipment in 1910.268 can be used for electrical linemen “when work is performed by linemen at positions more than 4 feet (1.2m) above the ground.”
Regarding helmets, the OSHA hard hat rules for telecom line workers in 1910.268 are (emphasis added):
Head protection. Head protection meeting the requirements of ANSI Z89.2-1971, "Safety Requirements for Industrial Protective Helmets for Electrical Workers, Class B" shall be provided whenever there is exposure to possible high voltage electrical contact, and the employer shall ensure that the head protection is used by employees. ANSI Z89.2-1971 is incorporated by reference as specified in §1910.6.
The helmet rules for electrical line workers are covered in 1910.135, a standard that specifically governs “Head protection:”
The employer shall ensure that each affected employee wears a protective helmet when working in areas where there is a potential for injury to the head from falling objects.
The employer shall ensure that a protective helmet designed to reduce electrical shock hazard is worn by each such affected employee when near exposed electrical conductors which could contact the head.
An assessment of the hazards faced by telecom and power-line workers includes the risk of getting electrocuted, falling from dangerous heights, and getting hit by falling or flying objects. Thus, both occupations essentially need the most protective headgear on the market — lineman hard hats that help safeguard them from impacts to the head and electricity.
OSHA and 29 CFR specify that helmets must meet the standards of ANSI Z89.2, a research-based safety standard created by the American National Standards Institute. References to this ANSI standard typically have a year after them, like ANSI Z89.2-1971 or ANSI Z89.2-2014, which indicates different editions. 2014 is the most recent version with the most up-to-date rules, so we'll reference it here.
Here’s one reason the different editions matter: If you notice, the 29 CFR 1910.268 safety rules for Telecom linemen said that hard hats must meet the “Safety Requirements for Industrial Protective Helmets for Electrical Workers, Class B” in ANSI Z89.2-1971.This means that these lineman hard hats require the most electrical protection. However, the newer editions of ANSI Z89.2, which can also apply, no longer classify those electrical hard hats as “Class B.”
Instead, here are the current ANSI hard hat Classes:
Thus, all telecommunications and power-line workers should have Class E hard hats (the equivalent of the old Class B) since both are at risk of coming into contact with high voltage. That said, even these electrical lineman hard hats don’t safeguard individuals from head contact with high-voltage lines exceeding 100,000 volts. Class E hard hats can protect against low-voltage and some medium-voltage cables, however, along with other electricity sources.
Helmets are also broken down into Types based on the impact and penetration protection they provide:
Since line workers work at height and sometimes in rough, windy weather conditions, Type II provides more suitable protection against impacts from different directions, including flying debris. For a similar reason, many line workers also prefer full-brim hard hats that can deflect more precipitation or objects from the face, ears, and neck.
As of 2020, the fatality rate for electrical line workers dropped enough to remove the profession from America's 10 most dangerous jobs. Death and injury rates among all utility line workers have “dropped by as much as 50 percent” since 2004. This is thanks, in part, to workers “using more protective gear and following standardized procedures that yield fewer injuries and fatalities” after dedicated safety efforts by OSHA, employers, and other stakeholders.
Nevertheless, electrical and telecommunications line jobs remain dangerous, physically demanding professions where workers must diligently follow safety procedures. And we still expect our utilities to simply work, 24/7 and 365 days a year, no matter what the weather does to this infrastructure.
So, the next time it storms and thunders and the power or cellular service goes out, spare a thought for the people who get out there, high in bucket trucks, making it all work.
For more information on hard hats, hardworking jobs, and head safety,explore the Hard Head Veterans blog, where wereview ANSI standards for hard hats,simplify the science of helmets and brain injury, and coverthe latest developments in helmet technology.