Lineman (occupation)

Lineman (occupation)

overhead lines (that supply power to trains)] A lineman (American English) or linesman (British English) (also occasionally called a lineworker or a line electrician) is a tradesman who constructs and maintains electric power transmission and distribution facilities. The term is also used for those who install and maintain telephone, telegraph, cable TV and more recently fibre optic lines.

The term refers to those who work in generally outdoor installation and maintenance jobs. Those who install and maintain electrical wiring inside buildings are electricians.


The occupation began with the widespread use of the telegraph in the 1840s. Telegraph lines could be strung on trees, but wooden poles were quickly adopted as the method of choice. The term 'lineman' was used for those who set wooden poles and strung the wire. The term continued in use with the invention of the telephone in the 1870s and the beginnings of electrification in the 1890s.

This new electrical power work proved to be much more hazardous than telegraph or telephone work because of the risk of electrocution. Between the 1890s and the 1930s, line work was considered one of the most hazardous jobs in existence. Approximately 1 in 3 linemen were killed on the job, mostly from electrocution. This led to the formation of labor organizations to represent the workers and advocate for their safety. The most important of these labor organizations in the United States, still in existence today, is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. This also led to the establishment of apprenticeship programs and the establishment of more stringent safety standards, starting in the late 1930s.

Better tools and protective equipment were produced as the occupation grew and safety became a primary concern. Some early equipment shows remarkable ingenuity even though it often provided only minimal protection. For instance, the orange-colored covering linemen place on high-voltage lines is called "hose", which recalls the earlier use of sections of ordinary garden hose for the same purpose.

In the United States, the rural electrification drive during the New Deal led to a wide expansion in the number of jobs in the electric power industry. Many power linemen during that period traveled around the country following jobs as they became available in tower construction, substation construction, and wire stringing. These roving workers or "boomers" as they were called, were known as rowdy risk-takers but also as hard workers with a strong sense of pride in their work. They often lived in temporary camps set up near the project they were working on, or in boarding houses if the work was in a town or city. The occupation was one of the most lucrative at the time, owing to the high level of skill needed and the hazardous nature of the work, but the hazards and the extensive travel limited the appeal of the work to only a hardy few. Often a lineman would finish one job with enough money to live on for several weeks or months before they would "boom out" to another job somewhere else.

A brief drive to electrify some railroads on the East Coast of the U.S. led to the development of a highly specialized branch of linemen who installed and maintained catenary overhead lines. Growth in this branch of line work stalled after most railroads chose to replace their steam engines with diesel, rather than electric, engines.

The occupation evolved during the 1940s and 1950s, as household electricity became more ubiquitous. As the public became more dependent on electricity, it became imperative that damaged power lines be repaired quickly. This led to an increase in the number of linemen needed to maintain power distribution circuits, and to keep them repaired in case of power outages, storms, or other emergencies. These maintenance linemen mostly stayed in one place and could settle down, although sometimes linemen could be called to travel to other states to help repair the damage from major storms such as hurricanes. Also during the 1950s, some electric lines began to be installed in underground tunnels, expanding the scope of the work. Safety standards and equipment have continued to improve; today, while still considered a somewhat hazardous occupation, line work is no longer as dangerous as it once was.


Power Linemen can work on either electrically energized (live) or de-energized (dead) power lines. When working with energized power lines, linemen must use protection to eliminate any contact with the energized line. Some distribution-level voltages can be worked using rubber gloves. The limit of how high a voltage can be worked using rubber gloves varies from company to company according to different safety standards (often negotiated in the union contract) and local laws. Voltages higher than those which can be worked using gloves are worked with special sticks known as "hot-line tools", with which power lines can be safely handled from a distance. Linemen must also wear special rubber insulating gear when working with live wires to protect against any accidental contact with the wire. The buckets from which linemen sometimes work are also insulated using fiberglass.

Even de-energized power lines can be hazardous, owing to the complex nature of the electrical system. Even though one circuit may be ostensibly shut off, that circuit may still be conducting electricity from an interconnection with other live circuits. Thus, care must be taken to ensure that all possible sources of power to a circuit are removed. This can be especially dangerous when transformers are involved in the connection to another circuit, or one circuit is fed by more than one other circuit. For example: A higher-voltage distribution level circuit may feed several lower-voltage distribution circuits, using step down transformers. A step down transformer can also act in reverse as a step up transformer. If the higher voltage circuit is de-energized so it can be worked on, but any one of the lower-voltage circuits connected to it via a transformer remains energized, the transformer will convert the power in the lower-voltage circuit back to the higher voltage, and the higher voltage circuit will remain energized. This commonly occurs after destructive storms such as hurricanes have damaged the local primary lines and someone wires a generator into their house wiring incorrectly (without an isolation switch). This is known as "backfeed". Another problem can arise when de-energized wires become energized through electrostatic or electromagnetic induction from energized wires in close proximity. One precaution against this is to connect all the wires in a circuit to each other and to ground before working on it, hence the saying, "if it's not grounded, it's not dead."

Incredible as it seems, live high voltage transmission lines can be worked barehanded. The lineman must be isolated from the ground by using an insulated bucket truck or other method. The lineman wears special conductive clothing which is connected to the live power line, at which point the line and the lineman are at the same potential, allowing the lineman to handle the wire safely. Such work is often done from helicopters and is considered a highly specialized area of line work; few linemen have the special training to perform it. Barehanded live-wire work can theoretically be done at any voltage, but because better protective means are available for lower voltages, it is only used for transmission-level voltages and sometimes for the higher distribution voltages. Live wire work is extremely common on low voltage distribution systems within the UK as all linesmen are trained to work 'live'. Live wire work on high voltage distribution systems within the UK is carried out by specialist teams. These teams are sometimes referred to as 'Hot Glove' teams.

Linemen may perform a number of tasks associated with power lines, including installation or replacement of capacitor banks, distribution transformers on poles, insulators, fuses, etc. Because most of these devices are heavy and irregularly shaped, linemen and their ground crews must have a good knowledge of rigging techniques, use of ropes, knots, and lifting equipment. These skills may have to be adapted to primitive conditions where almost all work is done by hand, with tools and material that are carried to the worksite. Such conditions are common in rural or mountainous areas that are inaccessible to trucks. The public seldom witnesses this type of work, which leads to the misconception that the occupation is predominantly comprised of working from a bucket truck on paved streets.

Telephone and cable TV lines may sometimes be placed on the same utility poles as electric distribution circuits. They are placed below the electric lines so telephone and cable TV linemen can work those lines without potential contact with high-voltage electricity.

Not all who work in outdoor tower construction or wire installation are linemen. A crew of linemen will also include several helpers, known as groundmen or "grunts". They help with the on-the-ground tasks needed to support the linemen, but may not do any work off the ground, nor any work which involves electrical circuits. Telephone linemen install cables above and below ground but, since telephone cables have many more conductors than power cables, cable splicers splice them.

In narrative

* "Slim" (1934) and "High Tension" (1938) by William Wister Haines are classic portrayals of line work during the Great Depression.
* "Slim (film)", (1937) starring Henry Fonda, based on the 1934 novel.
* "Wichita Lineman", (1968) a song written by Jimmy Webb in 1968 and first recorded by Glen Campbell.
* Roy Neary, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), is a lineman for an Indiana power company.
* The popular song "Wichita Lineman" written by Jimmy Webb and first recorded by Glen Campbell.

ee also

Overhead cable

External links

* [ Lineman Museum Gallery]
* [ IBEW History (includes lineman info)]


*Thomas M. Shoemaker and James E. Mack. (2002) "The Lineman's and Cableman's Handbook". Edwin B. Kurtz. ISBN 0-07-136240-1.

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