Wired for Tragedy
Short-outs on training save electric companies money, but may cost workers their lives.
By PETER GORMAN
Matthew Johnson was an apprentice lineman that August day in 2003, working with a CoServ Electric crew in Frisco, just outside of Dallas, repairing electrical lines that had been cut accidentally by telephone workers. Johnson, with less than a year’s experience, was normally the lower man on the pole, while his partner, a journeyman, actually handled the death-dealing wires. But his partner was ill that day, and the danger seemed slight, since the lines they were working near had been shut down for the past two days. The on-scene supervisor gave the 22-year-old the go-ahead to take the lead.
The pulley Johnson was using to bring the new line into place got stuck, and he leaned forward to get some leverage. As he pulled, his shoulder came in contact with a couple of the lines on the far side of the pole. Someone at CoServ had neglected to call that day to make sure the lines were still dead — and the crew hadn’t double-checked on site. The lines were live, and when he touched them, 7,200 volts of electricity raced through Johnson’s body, flames shooting out of his legs.
When the rest of the crew got him off the wire, Johnson was rushed by air ambulance to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where he died the next day.
His mother, Cheryl Ann Johnson, was devastated. “Matthew should never have gone up that pole first, because he was an apprentice,” she said. “His foreman shouldn’t have let him, but his foreman had gone back to a meeting at CoServ, so he wasn’t there. The supervisor on the scene, as well as Matty and his partner, thought the lines were off, so he let Matt go.”
The supervisor was fired for negligence. But Cheryl Ann Johnson thought the fault for her son’s death went beyond one man — and she wanted the companies involved to be punished. She sued CoServ for negligence. CoServ, however, carried workers’ compensation insurance, which, under Texas law, meant the company was immune from her lawsuit. Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, which owned the pole and which had hired CoServ to do its repairs, wasn’t at fault because no one had told the company to shut off the power at the site that day. And because Matt had not provided any kind of income to his mom, she had no standing under Texas law to sue the state workers’ compensation system.
The workers’ comp agency did pay for the CareFlight and the night in the hospital, then gave Cheryl Ann $6,000 for Matthew’s funeral. As it turned out, CoServ was found negligent — and paid a fine that, after appeal, totaled a whopping $4,250. And that was it.
“It came down to my boy being killed doing something he shouldn’t have been allowed to do, and CoServ walking away free,” Cheryl Ann said. “They just hired another boy to take his place and moved on.”
Matt Johnson’s story gets repeated about once a week across the United States, as linemen die horribly on the job. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), another 60 to 100 linemen annually suffer “devastating” injuries that leave them permanently crippled, missing limbs, or severely burned. And that’s not counting the workers injured at publicly owned utilities such as those run by cities. Those companies, which make up as much as one-third of the U.S. utility industry, don’t have to report injuries to OSHA.
An electrical lineman’s job is clearly one of the most dangerous in the United States. But the real tragedy, according to veteran linemen, family members, attorneys, and even OSHA investigators, is that many of those deaths and horrible injuries could and should have been prevented. The dirty secret of America’s “clean” power, they say, is that, since the electrical utility industry was deregulated in the 1980s, companies have increasingly found ways to cut back on their liabilities and expenses for line maintenance, resulting in less training, fewer experienced linemen, and a system by which companies are not held accountable or liable in any meaningful way, either by OSHA or in court. Family after family recounted stories of young men going up onto utility poles without adequate training, supervision, or equipment — and then of companies providing minimal benefits when the workers were maimed or killed, because they could claim “employee error” was the cause.
What’s more, OSHA investigators told Fort Worth Weekly that they have little knowledge on which to base their investigations — and little power to do anything about it when they do find potential wrongdoing. One OSHA source, who asked that his name not be used, said that, without question, accidents and deaths have gone up substantially since deregulation — and that the percentage of such accident victims who die has also increased.
“There are not enough well-trained linemen to teach the youngsters as they come up,” he said. “The real problem is that the utilities and electric companies cannot find anyone to go up into the bucket, so they take any warm body. That kind of job takes real years of training, and these people are not getting it.
“The average age of a lineman now is 56,” he said. But as these older workers retire, “they’re being replaced with 18- to 19-year-old kids. And those kids are the ones who are dying.”
Officials of companies like TXU, the dominant electrical utility in North Texas and the largest in the state, insist that the safety of linemen is a key concern to them and that they choose their linework contractors in part on the basis of their safety records. But they agree that, since deregulation, the experience level of linemen has decreased.
In Texas and in many other states, it seems, the situation for linemen is made even worse by “reforms” of the workers compensation insurance system, put into effect in 1991, which give injured workers and the families of those killed limited reimbursement for what can be millions of dollars in medical bills — and then deny them the right to seek redress in court.
There are people working to change that situation, however — and they figure the way to the electric companies’ conscience is, as usual, through the pocketbook. “The way things are now,” one attorney said, “it doesn’t cost them to train these kids, and it doesn’t cost them when they die.”
Typically, the power lines that run from your house to the utility pole on the street or in a backyard easement carry 600 volts of electricity — already more than enough to kill, in many situations. But the danger levels go up steeply from there: The “primary” power lines that follow streets and highways typically carry 7,200 to 14,000 volts. And the really big lines, the ones that stalk the countryside like ranks of 100-foot-tall alien invaders, can carry as much as 765,000 volts. Working any of those lines live with any degree of safety requires years of practice, and even then a momentary brain-freeze — taking off a piece of safety equipment to have a smoke, using an insulated glove with a tiny crack in its surface — can kill you.
In years past, a single company produced the electricity, owned the transmission lines, and owned the equipment and employed the crews to maintain and repair the lines. In Texas, that all changed in 1999, when the legislature passed a bill deregulating the electric utility industry. The new law forced utilities to separate their energy-delivery divisions from the energy-providing divisions. Utilities like TXU created new companies to own and operate their transmission lines or did away with or shrank their line maintenance departments in favor of contracting with other companies. (The newly formed companies didn’t fall too far from the nest, however — in TXU’s case, the new Oncor entity was still owned by TXU’s parent company and was eventually renamed TXU Electric Delivery.)
The combination of the deregulation and workers’ comp changes created a new and dangerous reality for electric linemen. It put new barriers between the utilities and any responsibility for what happened to linemen. And it turned over that responsibility, in many cases, to independent contractors. There are no federal requirements for linemen’s training, but outsourcing of line work meant that it became subject to the competitive bidding process. Providing extensive training or hiring lots of highly experienced workers is expensive — and expenses don’t help companies win contracts.
Bobby Reed, a lineman troubleshooter for TXU and a business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 69 of Dallas, said the lack of training and experience is critical. “Union linemen apprentice for four years,” he said. “The first year you work on the ground; in the second you can work with lines carrying up to 5,000 volts. In your third and fourth year you can work on live lines that carry more than that, but only if you’re accompanied on the pole and work under the direct supervision of a journeyman lineman.
“Now what’s happened all over the country since the mid-1980s is that the industry has been deregulated,” he said. “And what that meant was that companies like mine, TXU, and most everybody else, began eliminating their in-house linemen and subcontracting that work out. They got huge savings on eliminating health and pension benefits when they got rid of permanent employees, but they also got the benefit of no longer being responsible for the men, who went to work for the contractors. And since most work is by bid, low bids get the job. And low-bid generally means you get warm bodies and get them up the pole as quickly as possible, rather than have them going through years of training.
“There are companies out there — all over the country — who put guys on live lines after just a few months. And in this industry, what you don’t know will kill you.”
One OSHA inspector, who asked not to be named, said the low-bid pressure pushes the crews toward tragedy in several ways.
For one thing, he said, bonuses are paid to the line crews when their quick work helps the contractor stay at or under the bid amount. “That’s an incentive to get the work done quickly, which means shortcuts and accidents,” the inspector said. “And there are few small accidents in this industry.”
The linemen themselves are part of the problem, he added. “Some kid out of high school goes to work for $6 [an hour] on the ground and the guy in the bucket is making three times that. Well, that kid will do whatever he has to do to make that money. And the figures bear that out: Most of the fatalities are young guys that don’t know the industry. They’ve learned bad habits from guys with bad habits. When an older guy with legitimate experience has an accident, it’s more often a case of him trying to get the work done fast to make the bonuses most companies give.”
The need for bonus-producing speed also can play havoc with basic safety equipment requirements, the inspector said. Not surprisingly, line crews working on distribution lines — the ones carrying several thousand volts of electricity — require long lists of heavy-duty equipment: insulated rubber gloves and sleeves; insulated blankets and other equipment to cover the power lines themselves, rubber hoods to go over glass insulators, insulated bucket trucks or platforms, and, in some parts of the country, special fiberglass rods called “hot sticks” or “live-line tools” with various attachments from bolt cutters to clamps.
“So you might have 200 different live-line tools and you might need 20 hoses and blankets and hoods to do a job,” the inspector explained. “Most of the crews carry some of this equipment in their trucks, but they might get on site and realize they need something they haven’t got. So they can return to get it and lose the day — and a job bonus—or they can cut corners. And the foreman might say, ‘We can do this without that’— but he’s really an extension of management.”
And if the crew insists on not cutting corners? “In a lot of companies, they get fired,” he said.
According to that inspector and others at OSHA, however, when a crew does cut corners and an accident happens, the record nearly always reads “employee misconduct.”
“The company gives these guys a safety book and makes them sign the back page to prove that they got that book. And once he does, the company can tell us it was the guy-with-no-arms’ fault because he knew all the safety issues.
“The bottom line is that the companies don’t care. They will not spend the money for training that would result in fewer deaths. How much is a man’s life worth? To these companies it’s certainly less than the cost of training them.”
So why don’t the companies just shut down the power while men are working on lines?
“Customers don’t like interruptions, and utility companies don’t like those meters to stop turning,” he said. “They’d rather have the men work live lines.”
Patty Nottingham of West Virginia found out the hard way how dangerous it is for linemen to take on work they’re not trained for. Her son, Michael Todd Saunders, was killed on a line in Dunlow, W. Va., last June, while working for Pike Electric. “My son was a truck driver,” she said. “He had gone to work for Pike out of North Carolina. And they regularly underbid other contractors and only use non-union labor, so they were cutting a few corners.”
Her son had signed on as an equipment operator and truck driver. The day he died, he was helping run an electrical line to a state park. “Well, the journeyman lineman had called in sick so the crew was short-handed,” Nottingham said. “Michael and another guy were supposed to stay on the ground, but the foreman wanted the job done, so Michael said he’d climb the pole, despite never having been on one. In fact, he’d only joined that crew on Monday and this was Wednesday.”
Nottingham said her son had turned in his walking papers with Pike the first day on that crew because “the whole operation looked too dangerous, and he didn’t want to be part of it when somebody died.” But when asked, he climbed the pole. One live wire — which should have been in an insulated wrapping — detached from the pole’s crossbar and, hit the guy wire that Michael was working on. “The other fellows said they just saw a big ball of fire and he was hit,” she said. “He died on the pole. It took them 45 minutes to get his body down.”
A report of the incident said that the other lineman there that day had three to four years of experience and the foreman had a total of about six. If it had been a union job, the foreman — the man who sent Saunders up on that pole — would have had at least 10 years experience and in most cases more than 20, before reaching that grade.
Nottingham said that no one at Pike will return her calls — nor did they return calls from the Weekly seeking comment for this story — and that company representatives are sweet-talking her daughter-in-law with promises Nottingham’s not sure the company will keep. “They tell her they’re going to take care of everything, but I don’t believe it. My son had four young daughters. Who is going to take care of them until they get through college?”
Josh Royster figures Nottingham is right to worry. He went to work for Pike Electric in Alabama 1999, when he was 18. Within three months, he said, he was up in the bucket working on live wires carrying up to 19,900 volts. “At the time I knew nothing about line work and apprenticeships. I later learned it’s five years or more before anyone [is supposed to work on] anything that hot.” He managed to avoid any accidents on the pole. Instead, it was a serious mishap on the ground that taught him about how hard it is for a lineman to get what he considers justice, either from a utility company or the workers’ comp system.
At the time of his accident, Royster had gone to work for another company. During the process of setting a utility pole, Royster slipped in a ditch, and wound up with the pole being forced down on top of his ankle. Workers’ comp paid for the reconstructive surgery on his mangled ankle, but he had to sue the agency to cover the costs of treating complications. When he was able to get around, he applied for a job with Pike again, only to find he’d effectively been blackballed from the industry because of the lawsuit. Three and a half years later, “I’m OK,” he said. “But the runaround I got, the treatment from the company, those are experiences I wouldn’t want anybody to go through. You think you’re working for them, they’ll take care of you. Not so. First thing they say is ‘employee error’. And I know it’s the same for the guys who get burned up on the lines.”
What made Nottingham suspicious of Pike, she said, is that no one from the company ever contacted OSHA about her son’s death. That call was evidently made by a television crew that was filming the electrical installation at the park that day. And Pike is the company that’s just gotten a major contract to maintain and repair on electrical lines across Texas.
“Imagine a business [about] the size of the oil business, but which has never been touched by government,” the man said. “They have been allowed to make their own rules. And nowhere is there a specific rule that says how long a man must apprentice until he climbs a pole. When the company thinks he’s ready, he’s ready. And if he’s not, too bad for him.”
The speaker isn’t a disgruntled former utility employee or the bitter relative of a lineman who ended up in a wheelchair or a coffin. He’s an OSHA electric utility inspector, one of four who spoke to the Weekly, describing an industry that he said, in this respect, is subject to almost no meaningful controls. All asked that their names be withheld.
Nationwide, OSHA has 72 employees who have taken the four-day course that qualifies them as electrical utility “compliance officers.” But that course teaches them only how to keep themselves safe on the scene of a transmission line accident — not how to investigate what actually happened there. Of the 72, only one has been a qualified lineman, with the skills and experience to evaluate such an accident scene.
“All we do at OSHA is put out fires,” said a second inspector. “We ... take a four-day training course in lineman work and get our OSHA investigator’s qualification. So when I’m sent out, to be honest, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking for, so I don’t even do an investigation. I just take statements.”
He said the companies almost always blame the linemen themselves for the tragedies, saying the men were careless — or suicidal. “The most frequently heard company line when we investigate a death is ‘I don’t know why that guy decided to commit suicide. Something must have been bothering him.’ And we at OSHA go along with it because we don’t know what we’re looking at.”
Reed, the Dallas IBEW manager and TXU lineman, said that only once in his long career has he been on a crew where a man died. When it happened, Reed said, he imagined that the company would take care of things, but that wasn’t how it happened. “First thing they did was put the rest of the crew in a room with a company lawyer. And the lawyer starts going over what happened out there. And I mentioned one or two things we might have done differently. Well, that lawyer looked at me hard and said ‘That’s privileged information. You will not talk about that with the inspectors.’ I asked him if he was telling me I had to lie. He said, ‘I am not telling you to lie. But I am telling you not to bring it up. And I am telling you the inspector won’t know enough to bring it up. So just leave it alone.’”
Unfortunately, even when OSHA’s experienced investigator finds company fault, the agency has no teeth. In a recent case in Chicago in which a young lineman was killed while working on a tower he didn’t have the experience to work on, OSHA actually proved that his employer, the L.E. Myers Company, had committed a crime. But the company was only convicted of a misdemeanor, the second inspector said, “because we don’t have tough laws on the industry.” Still, the OSHA investigators said, that was the first criminal conviction their agency has ever obtained against a company in such situations.
OSHA also hit L.E. Myers with civil fines totaling $1 million — a figure that, like the fine levied against CoServ in the Matthew Johnson case, will be appealed and, according to investigators and lawyers, probably reduced to less than five percent of the original amount.
In Matt Johnson’s death, OSHA also concluded that the company, CoServ, was negligent, and assessed an $180,000 fine. But when CoServ appealed, the amount was reduced to $4,250. The reduction, inspectors said, was routine business.
Rusty White has worked as a lineman on and off for 30 years, both as a non-union and union hand. Two years ago, disgusted by what he saw as worsening conditions for the men in the field, he started Safety Awareness Consultants, a one-man band with the goal of finding a way to make power companies responsible to their workers and the families affected by catastrophic injury or death.
“I was tracking some cases and couldn’t believe how even the ‘good’ companies treated the men and their families,” said White, who lives north of Fort Worth. “These people were fighting insurance companies for basic medical [care],” he said.
White, who’s in his mid-50s, learned about the catch-22 of Texas workers’ comp system: If the electric company participates in the workers’ comp system, it can’t be sued for damages, no matter how horrendous the accident. Even those who have a financial stake in the downed lineman can only sue the state program in that case. And the utility companies fight the suits against the workers’ comp system, because a big verdict increases the cost of their workers’ comp insurance.
So White began contacting lawyers who specialize in electrical accident cases to see if there wasn’t some way to break the utilities’ lock on deniability. Since then, he said, he’s found about 2,000 lawyers around the country who have agreed to help take on the utilities and workers’ comp system, as they are needed. None of the cases he has sent to them has come to a resolution as yet, though there are two in the Fort Worth area, involving men who worked for TXU contractors, in which settlements could be reached in the next few months, according to a lawyer involved with the cases.
White might stand to make some money from some cases down the road but at the moment makes his living running a propane company, overseeing two ranches, and working as a part-time bail bondsman. “Hell, brother, I’m liable to be dead before the first case is won, appealed, won again and a judgment is finally paid,” he said. “But I’m not in it for the money, though I’ll take it if you give it. I just got sick of the stories. We’ve got one brother who had both of his arms and legs blown off — up to the shoulders, so prosthetics can’t even be fitted — and the electric company is fighting it, claiming it was employee error. His medical bills are going to be $15 to $17 million before he dies. Workman’s comp tops out at $750,000. Who’s going to take care of that guy and his family?”
As in the Johnson case, both the company that subcontracted with the utility to do the power line work and the utility itself are insulated from civil lawsuits. But the attorney working on the case of the man who was left a quadriplegic thinks he’s found a way around the system and hopes to force a settlement out of both companies.
The attorney, who asked that both his name and the injured lineman’s name be omitted from the story because of the delicate status of the case, said that he’s been involved with electrical linemen’s cases since the mid-’90s. He explained that when the legislature capped awards against workers’ comp at $750,000 about 15 years ago, that made it very difficult for lawyers to make any money off them, because expert witnesses and other expenses are so high and the cases tend to drag on for years. The effect was almost as complete as the written law excluding companies from direct liability.
“At the same time these [utility] companies make a lot of money,” he said. “Go look at TXU stock. Three, four years ago it was at $9 a share. Then ... a new president was brought in and told that if he could get it up to $40 a share for a year he’d get a $40 million bonus. Well, where do you get that kind of money? You cut your labor costs and you trim safety.” The $40 million figure was confirmed by a government source, although TXU officials would not reveal the amount.
The attorney, like others interviewed for this story, said that kids as young as 18 and 19 are being sent up in buckets and told they know enough to work live lines. “These kids have no idea that they’re playing with stuff that will blow you in half. Just blow your arms and legs off and if you’re not lucky, you might even live,” he said.
In a perfect world, the companies would realize that the cost of providing adequate training will be recouped in savings down the road, he said. “But unless we lawyers can start hitting these companies where it hurts, make them pay $50 million for some of these catastrophes that should never have happened, it’s only going to get worse.”
TXU was the only utility that responded to the Weekly’s requests for comments about line crew safety and company liability.
While he wouldn’t discuss the amount of the bonus paid to company president John Wilder in 2003, TXU spokesman John Hardesty denied that the utility ever cuts corners that affect safety. He said the company is proud of its own several-week-long lineman safety school and of the safety records of the companies it contracts with to do the power line maintenance: “I can tell you TXU and its vendors have one of the best safety records in the business. I don’t think you’ll find better.” He said Wilder’s bonus was based on actions he directed that divested TXU of some overseas acquisitions.
Hardesty said the company has an obligation “to provide our customers with the best service at the lowest possible cost. To do that we sometimes bring in outside help. In most cases we have contracts with different vendors that we use regularly so that we can build up a rapport with them. ... These companies are outstanding when it comes to safety records. Safety is one of our key goals,” he said. “And just let me add what respect we have for these men here at TXU. These guys are a different breed. While you and I are huddled in our houses in an ice storm, these guys are out there fixing line and restoring service and loving it.”
Hardesty agreed that with deregulation, beginning in about 2000, TXU made offers to some of their older linemen to retire early and moved some others off the line. “So in the past we might have had all TXU employees out there, and now we might supply the supervisory crew to see to the successful completion of the job. Successful and safe. Here at TXU if it’s not safe, it’s not successful,” he said.
“That’s bullshit,” said Reed, the TXU troubleshooter and union manager. “While the administration makes no bones about the union men having a better safety record because of our training, they don’t care. Hell, we’ve offered to share the cost of training these guys with TXU, and they still won’t do it.” He pointed out that in the last seven years alone, the number of journeyman linemen employed by TXU has dropped by two-thirds, from 60 to 20, and the number of foremen has been cut almost in half, from 30 to 17.
Most of TXU’s contract for power line work used to go to a company called Red Simpson Inc., which, according to OSHA officials, has an average safety record. However, another company recently bought out Simpson and is taking over that company’s work for TXU. The new owner is Pike Electric, the company that put Michael Saunders in a bucket without a single day of training.
Rusty White doesn’t see the lineman safety problem as being a question of union versus non-union companies. He sees it simply as an issue of training. When most linemen were union members, even a non-union outfit would have mostly well-trained crews, he said, in order to compete. But as the union is being phased out by deregulation, and in a period when so many of the union men are retiring, crews don’t have the experience at the foreman or journeyman positions that they once did to teach the younger guys.
“If you want to know why I started SAC, it’s to stop guys like me,” he said. “I was non-union most of my life. I ran non-union crews. I was just lucky that I never had an accident. ... So if we can shake things up a little, get some of these companies thinking they’re not so protected and might even be liable for taking care of a lineman’s family now and then, they might decide to take a little more time before they put some young buck up in a bucket.”
What gets to him most, he said, is that the men “who are losing their lives and limbs for these companies” and who he believes are now being treated so badly are the same men who risked their necks for years to help build the companies. “If you can give somebody a $40 million bonus, good for you,” he said. “But that same company — and it’s not just TXU, it’s most companies — will turn around and fight some woman who lost her husband on a workers’ comp suit just so their insurance doesn’t go up. That’s just not right.”
For her part, Cheryl Ann Johnson has become something of an activist in this cause since her son’s death. When she finds out about linemen’s deaths and injuries, she’ll often contact family members and warn them of what they’ll be facing in the aftermath.
“What I am hearing from families all across the country is that when something horrible happens, the companies promise to take care of things,” she said. “They say that when the workers’ comp [benefits are] over, they’ll keep taking care of the family. And that keeps a lot of families from suing for a [better] settlement with workers’ comp. They believe the companies, and then, when workers’ comp [payment] ends, the companies just say good-bye. And in other cases where the family does sue for a workers’ comp settlement, the companies fight it as long as they can — four or five years sometimes — until the family is just so worn out they’ll take whatever’s offered.
“It’s all legal, but it’s all wrong. These are our boys — our children and husbands and fathers — and something has got to change to make this right.”
You can reach Peter Gorman at
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