The Only Thing To Fear…

When I first applied for a job with my company it had another name, and the interviewer’s first question was “how do you feel about attics in the summer,” not “are you afraid of heights.” Now, both are valid concerns for a technician because techs to spend a bit of time in attics even in the summer. Techs also spend a bit of time in an elevated work position, either on a pole, or against the steel cable running between poles (we call it the strand) up to twenty-eight feet off the ground. My answer to that first question was “No problem.” I spent a lot of time in the attic in my parents’ house growing up, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. To be honest, if he had asked about heights, I would probably been just as nonchalant about it as well, since I was a bit of a climber as a child. It turns out I was wrong to be so cavalier about it. Monkey bars, laundry poles, playhouses etc. are no more than five or six feet up. Twenty-eight is a whole different perspective and your perception changes at altitude.

Today I recertified to teach technicians to climb utility poles. This is not a new thing. I have been teaching this for eleven years quite successfully. The reason I mention it is that there are two ways to get a technician up a pole: using a ladder and using gaffs. Now most people can figure out how to climb a ladder on their own. The trick of training ladders is not training people to climb, but rather all aspects of how to handle a ladder from picking it up safely, to carrying it safely, to setting it up safely and then climbing it safely. This is why there is a re-certification requirement. The other way is more involved. Gaffs are steel spikes strapped to the leg that are kicked into the wood of the utility pole as the technician climbs. Sharp steel spikes? Safety is an issue. Twenty feet up a wooden pole with no support other than a quarter-inch steel spike? Safety is an issue. In order to teach technicians how to climb, we instructors have to demonstrate that we know how to do it safely.

I was trained how to gaff in my new hire technical training in 2001. I was younger then—thirty-six, if memory serves—and smaller too. When my instructor got us all geared up and showed us how to approach and address the pole, I was non-plussed. I was still good to go when we climbed up to six feet on the pole. However, when he instructed us to continue climbing passed ten feet, it was as if the air became molasses. Each movement of my hands and feet took great effort and focus. The ground looked really far away. There didn’t seem to be as much oxygen in the air. The pole felt a lot flimsier and seemed to move back and forth a lot more. I did manage to pass the test and I was certified to climb in the course of my job, which I did several times the first month. After that, I tended to use the ladder more frequently, as most techs seem to do. In fact, for several years, my gaffs stayed stowed in my truck, never seeing the light of day.

Until I became an instructor.

Since I would be training the new techs in all aspects of their job, I had to teach them how to climb both with ladders and gaffs, which necessitated being certified not only to climb, but to teach climbing. This meant my climbing had to be textbook perfect. In that molasses-thick, oxygen-thin, skinny-pole air above ten feet, I had to be perfect. Well, this required practice, so I did. I had to tell myself that the air wasn’t really molasses, and it had plenty of oxygen, and the pole was perfectly fine for climbing. After all, part of my training was how to evaluate a pole for climbing. My perceptions were entirely in my head. Fear had taken control and made me perceive these difficulties. Besides, I had done it hundreds of times. “I can do this,” I said to myself. So I did. And I achieved my qualified safety trainer certification for both ladders and pole, as well as other aspects of workplace safety.

A few months later, I was informed that some of us were going to be certified to be expert safety trainers in the various safety disciplines, included ladder and pole. The Expert Safety Trainer (EST) is the instructor that certifies other instructors so they can, in turn, certify the technicians. I volunteered to go to pole and ladder, even though I still struggled with the molasses above ten feet. I figured the best way to handle my fear was to face it head on. Every time I addressed the pole, I relied on my training and experience to get me through, but every time I approached the pole I still felt trepidation at clipping the belt on and off the pole at the molasses heights. But something happened today that helped me get past that. We are using a new technology for fall arrest protection (keeping a person from falling off the pole if the gaffs come out of the wood) which the company is trying to distribute across the market. Once I was elevated, it occurred to me that nothing was going to make me fall, no matter what. All of the sudden, the molasses thinned. The climb didn’t seem so daunting. The air was still thin because we’re testing in Colorado Springs—more than a mile above sea level—and the air really is thin here; headache-causing, nausea-inducing thin.

Once I first achieved my EST certification, I continued to teach ladder handling regularly. The company, however, decreed that new hire technicians no longer needed to climb with gaffs, so there was no need to train them to do so. Because of this, I have not trained a pole climbing class in six years, yet I still recertify every year, just in case. Now, twenty feet seems quite comfortable as I have realized it was fear itself that made the air into molasses.

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