RED SPRINGS — The U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution that designated April 18 as National Lineman Appreciation Day.
For electrical workers in the town of Red Springs, it was anything but a holiday.
Derrick Edge, the town’s Electrical supervisor, and his crew clocked in at the regular time, and went to work. They didn’t stop until Friday’s sun peeked over the horizon.
Being on call comes with the job. And for linemen, the hardest part of the year is coming up — hot weather, and hurricane season.
“It seems like the times when they have to do the most work is when the conditions are worst,” said Walter White, spokesman for Lumbee River Electric Membership Cooperation.
“Linemen are true public servants,” said Perry Cummings, interim CEO for Lumbee River EMC. “They work every day in potentially hazardous conditions, oftentimes during extreme weather like hurricanes and ice storms, to keep the lights on for the rest of us.”
The cooperation has a “mutual aid” system established with other agencies, so even if no hurricane hits here, Tony Oxendine’s crew might have to go to a hard-hit region — as it did in 2005, when they helped to restore power to Katrina-ravaged areas.
But Oxendine, a foreman who recently marked his 21st anniversary with the cooperation, will point out that every job is a dangerous one.
“You’re dealing with 7,200 volts,” he said. “It will kill you, or put you in the burn center.”
It’s the danger of the job that Oxendine says forges a bond between the members of a crew — a linemen has to know that in an emergency, the others have his back, and that they can count on support when an accident that knocks out a line hits close to home.
In the April 18 case, the town was working to fix damage caused by a piece of farm equipment, but workers could have arrived at the scene to find a relative or friend behind the wheel of a car that wrapped itself around an electrical pole.
“It’s real hard to go right to sleep after something that,” Oxendine said. “But you have to get up in the morning and go to work like nothing ever happened.”
Those mornings begin with “tailgate meetings,” to make sure every crew member is up to speed on the latest safety measures, and has their equipment at the ready — to include hard hats, rubber boots, and and long rubber gloves that hook on the upper back like suspenders and are designed to neutralize an electric charge. But when the temperature rises above 80 degrees, the very things designed to protect the crew become a pressure cooker.
Men doing work in the “bucket,” at least 40 feet above the ground, must be lowered every 15 minutes or risk heat exhaustion. And when their feet hit the dirt, they pull their gloves off, turn them upside down, and release a river of sweat.
Safety remains of utmost importance to the men whom Oxendine says have a bond forged by danger. And competitions like the one held Monday, at a substation at the intersection of Old Lowery and Mt. Tabor Church roads, help to teach linemen how to rescue one of their own if they get shocked or otherwise stuck near the top.
They are designed to prevent accidents like the 10-foot fall the broke O.J. Oxendine’s arm.
O.J., who is set to retire in May, signed on 44 years ago, when there was no bucket to raise workers to the top of a pole. His fall could have been much worse, as could have the burn that happened when he fell into a shallow ditch and his arm brushed against a newly welded piece of metal.
“He fell right in there,” said Melvin Rachels, a foreman on the job where O.J. could be found on Friday. “All I heard was a couple of grunts, and now he’s got a real nice tattoo.”
Rachels said that the job has been made safer by new technology — but also more complicated. For some electrical work, he said, a laptop must be plugged in to the top of the pole.
“Used to be, all a lineman had to do was know how to climb,” he said. “Now there’s a lot more to it than climbing poles.”
A quick shake of O.J.’s head put a rest to any speculation as to whether or not he will use his skills learned on the job once he hangs up his hard hat, and just as quick came the answer for what he will do.
“Hunt and fish,” he said.