Just a wire in the air, who cares? A power line technician says you should
Don't rely on luck to keep you safe
Imagine driving up to your work site and regularly wondering, "why isn’t someone dead or horribly injured?"
Sadly, for BC Hydro power line technician (PLT) Will Van Den Born, this is a regular occurrence. "It's amazing how many times good luck has saved people over planning or knowledge."
According to Van Den Born, it's commonplace to encounter members of the public interacting with electricity in a dangerous way: fallers dropping trees on a primary power line; or homeowners cleaning up a tree when you arrive, working within 10-inches of the energized line when it should be 10 metres.
"I've lost track of the number of times I've arrived on site to find a tree nicely cut up, and the downed wire neatly coiled up and out of the way," he says. "We haven't been there yet; it's an open switch. We wouldn't even do that. We don't go near a downed line unless self-protection or clearance is in effect, grounds are in place – and we work around electricity every day."
Those are tough conversations. How do you make people understand the danger?
"I remove any levity from the situation. I don't sugar coat it – 'there could be a body on the ground right now, what you did is potentially fatal,'" he says, giving us an example of things he's said to share the gravity of the situation. "Probably half the people I've spoken to have seen it that way, the other half are resistant. No one wants to be told they did something wrong."
We can all fall victim to complacency
Based on his 27 years of experience as a PLT, Van Den Born thinks it comes down to complacency. People see the wire down, know that their power is out and assume the power is off in the line too. But unlike in the movies, a live line doesn't necessarily spark, buzz, or move around.
He says it's not just the average Joe that can get complacent. As a volunteer firefighter, he's seen first responders make the same mistakes.
"They focus on the victims and don't see the big picture. They're just trying to help a victim out of a vehicle. They don't see the wire dangling over their head, which they've just ducked underneath."
That's why we help fund electrical safety training for first responders, to help everyone stay safe on scenes like motor vehicle accidents and fires.
Even our own power line technicians and other crew members can fall victim to complacency after years on the job.
For the most part, PLTs are heading to a site to pick up the pieces and restore power. Van Den Born says maybe about 5% of the time, they actually see the release of energy and when they do, it's frightening.
"We're trained and recognize the danger but the power line is so common – they're all around us, on the side of the road, in front of our house – you think nothing of it. Even we can become complacent with the hazard and potential energy stored in a conductor. You only need to see the night sky lit up more brightly than daytime by an arc once, to appreciate the release of uncontrolled energy."
Before heading out to a work site, he takes a moment to self-trigger and heighten his awareness of the danger, reminding himself that he's entering a potentially life-altering situation. But encountering a situation where someone has intentionally or inadvertently put themselves in harm's way still has him in disbelief.
"You finish the job and drive away with your heart in your mouth. It just makes you sick thinking about what could have happened. Easily."
Instilling safe work practices to the next generation
Like many others at BC Hydro, the workplace has become a bit of a family affair and Will's son, Josh, is also a lineman. He says his son's presence has reinforced his focus on safety even further.
"I make sure I follow the rules because I want my son to. It would devastate me if he was injured based on something I reinforced."
Van Den Born works as a trades training instructor, training new power line technicians who are starting their careers with BC Hydro. He carries this safety perspective through to the new generation of linemen.
"I reinforce it's a ‘team sport'; we rely on each of our fellow crew members to watch our back, proper procedures and work methods, the safety equipment that we use – it's all going to keep us safe, in addition to working as a team."
It's not worth it. Stay back.
At the end of the day, Van Den Born says we have too many electrical contacts and close calls here in B.C. He thinks it's important we do everything we can to get the message out.
"It looks so benign, just a wire in the air. Who cares? Looks the same as a wire in a fence. It's not like an active chainsaw; it doesn't look and sound scary. It is. Stay back."
Down. Danger. Dial. If it's down, it's a danger, stay back at least 10 metres, and dial 911.