By Jennifer Robison
Quick: What do pioneering inventor Thomas Edison, electrical engineer Nikolai Tesla and retired PG&E lineman Steve Little have in common?
All three are among the rarefied group of roughly 70 people who belong to the International Lineman’s Museum and Hall of Fame in North Carolina.
Little, 70, joined the elite league in early May, when he and his family, which includes PG&E transmission line supervisor and son Joe Little, traveled east for the ceremony.
“I’m overwhelmed. I’m still trying to comprehend it, because there have to be more-deserving people,” Little said.
The hall of fame would beg to differ: It inducted Little for what it called his “instrumental” role in the nationwide research and development of barehand work, a line maintenance method that has saved linemen’s lives and extended their careers.
On the surface, barehand work doesn’t sound like it’s safer: Linemen come in direct contact with energized, 500,000-volt transmission lines.
But barehand is considered safer than maintenance on de-energized lines, because it allows linemen to use gloved hands for more precise repairs. The traditional alternative — maintenance at a distance from the line using an insulated Fiberglas hot-stick — doesn’t allow manual dexterity.
Also, because barehand linemen are placed directly onto transmission towers via helicopter or bucket truck, there’s less potential for climbing and falling injuries. That makes it easier on the body, so linemen can work longer.
Barehand saves costs too, both for PG&E and for homeowners and businesses that avoid power outages during line repairs or upgrades.
It took a few years for Little to help bring barehand work to PG&E.
Little began his career with the company in 1969 as a groundman. He also served as an apprentice, journeyman lineman and troubleman before becoming a supervisor in the 1980s.
In 1984, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration replaced California OSHA. The change made it possible to explore barehanding, then prohibited at the state level but not the federal one.
Because of PG&E’s size, the company’s embrace of barehand work had an outsized impact on the energy industry. Utilities from states including Florida, Georgia and Arizona have visited PG&E to study procedures that Little helped perfect.
“If my involvement made a difference in the trade, it was watching people get to go home to their families every night,” Little said. “I think about that sometimes, because I’ve seen the other side of it. It’s always thrilling when you see everyone walk out at the end of the day.”
Little retired from PG&E in 2000, but he didn’t stay retired. He soon went to work as a superintendent for contractors. He then worked from 2012 until November as training specialist at Northwest Lineman College in Oroville, where he taught and mentored tomorrow’s line workers.
He has simple career advice for anyone who wants to excel in his or her career.
“Learn everything you can possibly learn. Be quiet and listen. And remember that when you think no one is watching you, someone is watching you. Don’t sit back and drink a cup coffee. Find something to do. If you’re a hard worker, everyone will want you on their crew.”
Email Currents at Currents@pge.com.