A student lineman paralyzed last spring when he fell during a practice climb has sued the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology for $2 million.
Kalen Griffin, 20, was in his first semester of OSUIT-Okmulgee’s High Voltage Lineman Program, which enrolls 25 students per semester. Students participate in exercises at the school’s pole climbing yard.
Griffin was climbing without instructor supervision in April 2018. He was near the top of the utility pole when he adjusted his safety belt, lifting it over the top of the pole. He fell about 40 feet to the ground, suffering broken bones and multiple spinal injuries, according to his lawsuit.
Electrical power line installers and repairers have one of the highest fatality rates by occupation in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2017, 26 were killed on the job, according to the bureau.
Griffin’s lawsuit, filed in Payne County in January, claims negligence, breach of contract, premises liability and ultrahazardous activity by OSUIT. The suit argues, in part, that the school is responsible for his injuries because instructors encouraged the “untrained” students to practice the “ultrahazardous activity” without supervision and safety devices.
Attorneys for both sides declined to discuss details of the case. But an OSUIT spokeswoman denied that instructors encouraged students to practice climb without teachers present.
“I can say unequivocally that OSUIT has not, nor ever will, encourage unsupervised activity at the pole yard,” Shari Erwin wrote to a reporter.
At the Lansing (Michigan) Community College lineman program, students aren’t allowed to climb without an instructor present, the coordinator said.
“We check the retractable harnesses every time the students are instructed,” Rex Peckens said. “And the pole yard is checked for issues that might have taken place while we weren’t there.”
Erwin said safety is a high priority for OSUIT’s program.
“With high voltage, obviously, it’s a dangerous occupation,” she said. “But we really make it an important aspect of classroom curriculum from day one. With each of our technical programs, safety is one of our core components.”
Because the climbing yard isn’t electrified, the university is not required to have OSHA or another outside agency inspect it, Erwin said.
Lineman today often have the option of using a lift to reach power lines, which decreases the risk of falling. But not every scenario allows for that option, so climbing skills and safety are still stressed in training programs.
Pete Anders of Stamford, Texas, has been a lineman for 40 years. Regardless of the safety risk, he said climbing to reach the power lines is his preferred method.
“I like climbing,” Anders said. “You got more reach and you can do more (while climbing) than you can out of a (lift).”