Lives hang in the balance.

That’s why bone-chilling temperatures or freezing rain can’t keep utility line workers from completing their rounds.

As winter nears and worse weather arrives, it becomes more likely installers and repair workers will be called out to restore power in affected areas of Bartholomew County.

“In the winter, it takes you at least twice as long to accomplish than what it would take you during the summer,” said Tom Wetherald, 51, who has fixed lines for Duke Energy the past 25 years.

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As he reflected on life before joining Duke, Wetherald talked about how he enjoyed a lit fireplace at home and watching movies during a relaxing snow day off from classes.

“I used to like storms,” he said.

A dangerous trade

With his 11th winter as a Duke line worker fast approaching, Randy Wagner knows how everything he is required to fix is both frigidly cold and excessively heavy after a snow or ice storm.It’s especially bad when Wagner, 44, finds himself doing repairs in a wooded area with either frozen snow or ice on the trees.“You hear this cracking every time the wind blows and see large branches breaking off,” Wagner said. “I find myself thinking: ‘OK, if the electricity doesn’t kill me, will a heavy limb fall and crush me?’”

When forced to climb utility poles during or after a winter storm, line workers are required to face the icy coating so their safety belts can grasp the dry side of the wood, Wetherald said.

Five-year line worker Nick Kobylarczyk, 30, knows how the weight of heavy frozen precipitation can drop a line so low that he has to resort to hitting it with a stick to try to knock the ice or snow off — and not always successfully.

“Sometimes, it’s so heavy that you realize you can never get the line high enough,” Kobylarczyk said.

But when it does work, all three linemen know they will first hear a sound like a plucked banjo string, followed by pieces of ice flying in every direction.

While they all recognize the sound, these men also know they will never see those sharp pieces coming their way if they are working at night.

U.S. labor statistics show 30 to 50 line workers in every 100,000 are killed each year. That’s more than twice the fatality rate of police officers and firefighters.

Many more suffer non-fatal loss of limbs from electrical burns and mechanical trauma, making a line worker among the top 10 most dangerous professions, according to TD World Magazine, which reports on the electrical power industry.

In this business, safety comes first and comfort second. While workers’ hands are protected by high-voltage gloves designed to shield them from electrocution, they do little to provide warmth.

And then there’s the grueling schedule.

After a major winter storm, line workers are often assigned to work 16-hour days, followed by a mandatory eight hours of rest. It’s a schedule that could continue for up to a week, Duke Energy spokesman Chip Orben said.

“These guys are very dedicated to their jobs and they have a sincere desire to get their customer’s power back on,” Orben said. “Required breaks are best for everyone. But if they could work longer, they probably would.”

When these technicians restore power to individuals who rely on oxygen or heart machines, they — like police officers and firefighters _ literally save lives.

While acknowledging the dangers, some people dismiss the hazardous work since line workers are well paid, Wetherald said.

Duke line workers make from $37,123 to $88,664 a year, but “people forget we’re human,” he said.

Taking power for granted

Line workers understand that power customers may feel like they have been thrown back into the Stone Age by an electrical outage, which can generate frustration and resentment. “While a few people are very grateful, others literally rip our tails, wanting to know why it’s taken so long,” Wetherald said. “They don’t understand it’s not as easy as throwing in a new fuse.”After severe weather knocked out power to about 11,000 homes and businesses in the Columbus area July 14, it took nearly an entire workday to get the lights and air conditioning back on. That’s because 20 separate problem areas had to be located and addressed before electricity could be restored, Orben said.

The utility brought in several electrical contractors to quicken the pace of repairing widespread damage, he said.

Setting priorities

Line workers don’t get to prioritize their own projects, instead fixing problems in the order dictated by their supervisor after a damage assessment of an entire area is completed, Orben said.“Priority one is to ensure that those providing critical care, such as hospitals, get served first,” Orben said. “Then it goes to the largest mass that we can get on the quickest, and spreads out from there.”After a neighbor complained last summer about being without electricity for 24 hours, Kobylarczyk said, he reminded him that his family was in the same boat.

But compared to Orben, Kobylarczyk got off easy.

Orben, who serves as the public contact for Duke Energy throughout many parts of central Indiana, had to wait two days for his lights to be working again.

Wetherald came home after restoring power to hundreds of homes only to find his own family in the cold and dark. He also discovered 4 inches of water in his basement earlier this year because an outage stopped his sump pump, he said.

“The worst part of this job is knowing I’m not going to be there if something happens to my family during a disaster,” Wetherald said.

Finding perspective

While a power outage certainly can challenge a community, the impact typically falls well short of a disaster.Wagner said he learned the difference when he was sent to the Gulf Coast in September 2005. He was among several Duke employees who volunteered in the wake of Hurricane Rita, the fourth-most-intensive Atlantic hurricane in history, which resulted in $12 billion in damages.Immediately after Wagner and others restored power to the town of Sulfur, Louisiana, the crew drove just 20 miles before entering a community about the size of Nashville, Indiana, that was completely leveled, he said.

“The only thing that was still erect was an American flag,” Wagner said, describing the experience as heart-wrenching.

But what really touched the father of two was the warmth and compassion he felt from the homeless residents of Louisiana. It was reminiscent of how New Yorkers pulled together after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Wagner said.

“These people had basically nothing, but they were coming out asking me if I needed water or food,” Wagner said. “I’m thinking: ‘Our meals are catered, and your house is totally destroyed. But here you are, trying to help me out. Wow.’”

What line workers do

Line installers and repairers, also known as line workers, install or repair electrical power systems and telecommunications cables, including fiber optics. 

They encounter serious hazards on the job, including working with high-voltage electricity, often at great heights. The work also can be physically demanding.

Although most work full time during regular business hours, some work irregular hours on evenings, weekends and holidays when needed.

To become proficient, most line installers and repairers require technical instruction and long-term, on-the-job training. Apprenticeships are common.

Those who are hired by Duke Energy are expected to complete the following:

First-year apprentice

  • Seven weeks of formal training, mostly in the classroom.
  • On-the-job training for the remainder of the year.

Second-year apprentice

  • Five weeks training, mostly in the classroom.
  • On-the-job training for the remainder of the year.

Third-year apprentice

  • Three weeks training in the field and classroom.
  • On-the job training for the remainder of the year.

Fourth-year apprentice

  • Two weeks training in the field and classroom.

Required classes annually for all Duke line workers

  • Pole-climbing classes
  • Safety equipment updates.

Employment of line installers and repairers is projected to grow 7 percent annually through 2022. Job opportunities should be best for those with good technical and mechanical skills.

Frightening and funny

When asked to share both his most humorous and scariest on-the-job moments, Duke Energy line worker Nick Kobylarczyk provided two contrasting stories.

Frightening

On June 29, two workers suffered severe electrical shock when an 18-foot-tall air handling unit they were moving came in contact with a 69,000-volt transmission power line. While a third worker operating a front end loader wasn’t harmed, none of the three could be approached until the electricity was turned off.

While the power line belonged to another utility, Kobylarczyk was recruited by police after officers saw his truck was nearby.

“I needed to make sure that line is off, but I had no idea what type of line it was,” Kobylarczyk said. “I wasn’t familiar with the system at all.” 

But since two victims were facing death without immediate medical attention, he had no choice but to do his best.

Luckily, he made the right choices that quickly led to a rescue. However, Kobylarczyk said it took him some time to stop shaking from the adrenaline rushing through his body.  

“I just remember thinking: ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?’” Kobylarczyk said. “I hope I never have to deal with that again.”

Funny

Kobylarczyk also wasn’t sure what he would be facing this spring when he was dispatched to another incident, where he discovered a live raccoon on a power line.

While the animal was hanging by two paws when Kobylarczyk arrived, the raccoon was anything but distressed.  

“He wasn’t hurt in the least,” he said. “Just chilling out, having a great time.”

Although complex rescue methods were contemplated, Kobylarczyk found the simplest way was the best.

“I just extended a pole up to the racoon, who decided he had enough fun, so he just casually climbed down the pole and into the waiting arms of Animal Control.”

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.