19.08.2018 | Linesmen at work for Axpo

High-wire act with a view

A high-wire act at dizzying heights - for Axpo, for other companies, and most of all for a reliable power grid in Switzerland. Linesmen work where no one else other than birds can get to: High up on the power masts and high voltage lines of the Swiss power grid the Axpo linesmen carry out repairs and make a significant contribution to a high security of supply with a great deal of physical strength. Safety is always the top priority.

It's exciting to watch a linesman at work on an overhead line some 20 metres above the ground, and somehow, we are relieved to be standing on the ground. Anyone who has experienced that queasy feeling while climbing up an observation tower and was forced to turn back half-way should definitely not pursue the occupation of linesman. However, the profession requires a great deal more than a head for heights. We accompanied Thomas Steiner, who has been working for Axpo Grids as a linesman for nearly 20 years, on a job with his team.

"You have to be able to depend on your colleagues"

The day starts early. Depending on the job, sometimes for external companies, the Axpo linesmen are en route all over Switzerland. Today, we are meeting Thomas and his work colleagues in Unterterzen on the Walensee. A transmission line above the lake was damaged by a falling tree during the Burglind storm and has to be repaired.

The morning coffee break with colleagues serves as the final briefing before the work begins. "As linesmen we never work alone. For safety reasons we always work in pairs. Teamwork is important. Once we are up there we don't have much flexibility and have to be able to count on our colleagues to one hundred per cent," Thomas explains.

While he and his teammate Sepp make their way to the job site, another colleague at the Grid Control Center in Baden makes sure that the line section has been switched off during the repair work. Every power mast in Switzerland has a number and information about the line and line owner so that the damaged line section can be identified as quickly as possible. The Axpo medium- and high-voltage grid is 2200 kilometres long and has about 8,000 masts.

Stinging nettles and blisters

We're lucky – "our" masts and the damaged transmission line is in an accessible location near an asphalt hiking trail so that we can get to the site by car. It's not always that easy to reach a site, as Thomas knows from his own experience. "Usually it's a 10 to 30-minute walk up a mountain with up to 200 kg of material that we transport on our backs or with motorised carts." Sometimes helicopters are used for very remote sites in alpine terrain.

Not only the route, but also the work can vary depending on the location. High-voltage lines along railway lines or over highways have to be repaired during the night.

Today the only obstacle is the patch of stinging nettles around the power mast. A tick vaccination is also a must for every linesman.

Safety is the highest priority

We look up in awe at the 20-metre high mast that Thomas has to climb today and are reminded of shaking knees on the edge of the ten-metre diving board at the swimming pool. The height is not a problem for Thomas. Depending on the masts, the linesmen work up to 100 metres above the ground. Thomas warns: "Whether its 20 or 100 metres, and regardless of the work - the height and the work should never become routine. That would be dangerous because the work up there on the line requires high concentration and one has to be able to react quickly."

Wearing a helmet, safety belt and long trousers and gloves for protection is a must. The safety of the linesman is always the highest priority. A line that connects the linesman to the guy on the ground also serves as a means of transporting material. In emergencies the second man on the ground can help quickly or call for rescue. All linesmen are trained as first responders and participate regularly in emergency drills. Fortunately, no serious accidents have occurred so far.

A feat of strength with a feel for balance

Not every power mast has a ladder to climb up. This one here doesn't either. Thomas has to build his own ladder piece by piece. The material is pulled up with a cable, sometimes with a winch or crane. A feat of strength.

Thomas is a former wrestler, referee and since this spring an honorary member of the National Wrestling Association. Does the experience and strength as a former wrestler help at a height of 100 metres? "You have to be physically fit for this job," explains Thomas. "Almost all linesmen do sports in their free time. It's fitness not age that decides how long you can climb up the mast."

Two hikers stop and watch with astonishment as Thomas works high up on the narrow cross arms of the mast like a circus artist. A feel for balance and sure-footedness are just as important as strength and skill.

Training on the job

Linesmen come from very different occupations, mainly from vocational fields. Ideally, they have completed studies in a related area, for example grid electrician, electrical fitter, metal worker or forestry worker. They learn the technical skills and knowledge on the job. A head for heights, a feel for balance and sure-footedness, as well as physical fitness are a must. Axpo employs about 25 linesmen that also work for other grid operators throughout Switzerland.

"The weather is one of the biggest challenges"

With a type of cart mounted to the transmission line, Thomas slowly makes his way to the repair site. Once there, he has to wrap a 3 kg repair spiral over the damaged section. The linesman must not move when he’s on the uppermost grid lines. He has to pull the lines down with a rope for repairs. This is possible because voltage lines are always slack in order to minimise the load on the power masts.

High up every move has to be just right. Depending on the job, the linesmen spend several hours on the site - with breaks to enjoy the beautiful view.

The sun is hot and while we sit in the shade the linesman works in the searing heat. "Weather is one of our biggest challenges," Thomas explains. "Sometimes its the sweltering heat in summer, or the icy temperatures in winter. The weather is almost never ideal." The linesmen work throughout the year in all kinds of weather. Heavy rainfall, lightening or thunder are the only things that force the linesmen to stop work and come down from the masts for safety reasons. As a rule, work can be planned ahead of time based on reliable weather forecasts.

A fascination for nature

Thomas successfully repaired the line section on the Walensee. However, the work day is far from over for Thomas and his colleagues. The linesmen have numerous tasks to complete on the ground, for example assembling and dismantling masts, inspecting masts or forestry work to protect the lines from fallen trees, just to mention a few.

We wanted to know what fascinates Thomas about the profession of linesman after 20 years. "I am always fascinated by the height at which we work. The quiet and the nature up there are unique - and at the end of the day it's very satisfying to know that I have done something to contribute to the security of supply in Switzerland.

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