“Utility Lineman work is dangerous. But it is an enjoyable job. I loved it. If I were to be born again I would go for that job and start from the bottom all over again…Electricity is very important for people. Many times when I worked hard on the lines and restored power, many people would call and say thanks…that made me feel good.”
By Staff Writer
So there’s a storm: slanting rain, heavy winds, thunder and lightning… and down goes an electricity
pole taking all the power to your home with it.
Your life essentially gets derailed.
No television. The children can’t play their favourite games.
You fret and fume and you wonder when GPL will return the power.
Hours pass and the house is dark and still.
You once again begin to appreciate the importance of electricity.
Then the electricity and the lights return. The children yell: “Lights! Lights! And all is well again.”
But have you ever stopped to wonder about the men who make this possible?
They are the utility linemen, the unsung heroes who climb the poles sometimes in the darkest nights and make the connections to restore the power and keep it flowing.
This week’s ‘Special Person’ has played his part admirably in this regard for many years.
A NEAR FATAL MISTAKE
At the beginning of his career as a Utility Lineman in Guyana Electricity Corporation (GEC) over three decades ago, Richard Bourne was at the top of a power pole at Ogle on the East Coast of Demerara, when he was hit by 11,000 volts of electricity. His foreman on the ground, some 50 feet below, later said that he believed that power to the pole had been cut off, so he had given Bourne the go-ahead to link two wires. It was a near fatal mistake.
When those on the ground saw what was happening they rushed to cut off the power. Badly shaken, somehow Bourne made it down the pole.
He asked for a drink of water, but was told that given what he had just experienced,
drinking water was out of the question.
Bourne recalled last week during an interview with Kaieteur News that,”When the power hit me it was like a blow from a sledgehammer. I let go. Thanks to God I was wearing a very good pair of safety boots. As a result the electricity did not earth off. If it had, it would have been bye bye for me.”
The very next day, he was climbing again.
Bourne, a resident of Lovely Lass village, West Coast Berbice, has helped to keep the electricity flowing to hospitals, businesses and homes in Guyana for over 38 years.
Last week, the retired power utility worker reflected fondly, “Utility Lineman work is dangerous. But it is an enjoyable job. I loved it. If I were to be born again I would go for that job and start from the bottom all over again.”
INSPIRATION AND HARD WORK
Robert Osquit Bourne was one of five children born to George and Caroline Bourne nee Rawlins. He spent most of his formative years living with an Aunt at Manchester on the Corentyne.
His first job with the electricity company, in 1964, was as a Pole planter for the Power Station located at Onverwagt, West Coast Berbice.
Those days the plan was merely to provide electricity for villages in West Coast Berbice within a three-mile radius of Onverwagt, “three miles to the east and three miles to the west.”
The huge lantern posts to serve as utility poles came to Onverwagt from Georgetown by train. There were thirteen men in the team and not many machines, so the work (digging the holes and planting the posts) had to be done by sheer muscle power.
Bourne recalled being inspired by his elders on the job, mainly two men, one of whom was an Islander named Braithwaite, and the other, a compatriot named Roy Webb.
“Braithwaite gave me the job as pole planter. After I took the interview he told me you got the work. Go away now and say nothing to no one.”
Bourne worked diligently as a pole planter, but his imagination was captured by the alluring sight of Linemen climbing up tall posts and working coolly and efficiently in providing electricity, even though the ground was some distance below.
Bourne said that both Braithwaite and Webb apparently recognised how diligent he was and decided to push him.
He got his first break a few months later when Braithwaite informed him one day, “I’m going to send you over to work with Mr Webb as a Lineman, I hope you can make it.”
Webb didn’t assign him to Lineman duties right away, but made him responsible for keeping track of tools and materials.
“A few weeks later, apparently after not finding fault with my work, he appointed me as Lineman II.”
In the ensuing years he moved through the supervisory ranks, and subsequently to Training Instructor at the Guyana Power and Light School for Apprentices before retiring in 2003.
He returned to GPL that same year on contract, up to 2014, before deciding to call it a day.
Bourne reminisced that supervisors back in the day demanded the highest standards of work.
“There was a man named Allan Jordan. He was the Area Superintendent. He was a soft-spoken man. You had to listen very carefully to hear what he was saying. But even his brother was afraid of him. His brother, who was the head of Office at Victoria East Coast Demerara used to complain to us, ‘hey boy, is me brother, but that man ent easy. That man would find fault in anything and everything that we do in this job.’”
Bourne added: “That Jordan, there ent no way you could fool he or bluff your way out of not doing your job properly.”
Bourne also recalled another mentor of his called ‘Brother Adams’ who was the local contractor who strung the power lines across the Berbice River. There was also special mention of Lance Felix.
“These were great guys. I learnt a lot from them in terms of discipline, attitude to work, and to general safety. They were like fathers to me.”
‘THINK BEFORE ACTING’
Bourne said that there are some Linemen like himself who “gained wisdom early in the game and survived”.
There were, however, a few ”cowboys” who neglected safety, because they thought they could do anything and get away with it, or sometimes were responding to the pressure from contractors.
“The emphasis from some contractors is, ‘Hurry up and get the job done.’ [The cowboys] are the ones who say, ‘Oh, that! No big thing. No problem. I can do anything. Some of these guys climb power poles wearing sandals. Those sometimes are the ones that we see with the most critical or even fatal injuries.”
“My motto as a Lineman always was ‘Think before acting. Never act then think’. When you’re dealing with electricity you don’t want to act then think!”
While falls are a constant danger for those who work on electrical power lines, electrocution and burns are more common threats.
“The aim is for that Lineman to go home the way he came to work,” Bourne emphasised. “The slightest lapse can be fatal.”
Or it may not even be a lapse, but perhaps an unexpected accident.
A veteran can get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
‘SO THE WORK GOES’
On a sunny day in May 2008 shoppers in Regent Street were horrified at the sight of a Lineman dangling from the top of a pole. He hung by his safety belt for about five minutes as his colleagues ran to shut off the power in the area.
Fortunately, at the time of the incident he was wearing the necessary protective gear.
Bourne was pragmatic in assessing the profession:”So the work goes. Linesman work tough. Another thing: you can’t be afraid of heights. That is one of the first tests you have to pass. Not everyone has the stomach for it.”
Bourne was quick to add that despite the hazards there were numerous moments which he found heartwarming.
“Electricity is very important for people. Many times when I worked hard on the lines and restored power, many people would call and say thanks…that made me feel good.”
He recalled that while working on the West Coast of Demerara, a colleague who had never been to Parika suggested that they go for a drive and hangout a bit.
“I was driving the vehicle. A few hours later we returned to base. My friend was very angry with me. He said, ‘from today Richard I ent going with you to Parika ever again.’”
Bourne explained: “Man as soon as I hit the road. Every two hundred yards, somebody calling out ‘Bourne. Bourne, come check this for me; come look at meh meter; come check my connections’. What do I do? Pass them? All the way down I stop to help out people.
“My friend was very annoyed, he said ‘man you supposed to be off-duty, yet you stopping every time somebody call you out. You gone in their homes, you climbing poles and you supposed to be off-duty. Not me, I ent travelling with you to go and hangout anywhere again.”
“I understood his frustration, but as far as I was concerned is so the work goes.”
He has received several awards as a long serving worker of the GPL.
He receives a bonus from the Company every year at Christmas in appreciation of his long and dedicated service.
Nowadays Bourne prefers to stay at home and watch television, especially cricket matches.
“Linesman work was hard work; I loved it. But I had my fill of it, now is time to relax,” he said with a smile.
He deserves every minute of that relaxation.
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