How the used to build transmission towers

Originally published at:


What’s the mystery? All manufacturing and construction used to be a lot cheaper because laws and regulations to protect the lives of workers were either very loose or nonexistent. Companies were allowed to treat workers as if they were as expendable as nails and paper towels.


They didn’t show one interesting step, which is where the growing tower is used to pull up the crane after one level is completed. Mobile phone masts are still built this way in developing economies… Except without the winch, and with 20 strong guys on a rope.


I no longer wonder why infrastructure used to be cheap.

Visit any big infrastructure project built in that era and you’ll usually find a plaque or memorial to the workers who lost their lives in its construction. Due to a combination of the regulations inspired by those accidents and the penny-pinching greed of those who resent the regulations being imposed you don’t see them a lot on more recent projects.

This newsreel is corny, but it shows a real respect for skilled blue collar workers that rarely appears in modern news stories.


Has infrastructure really gotten that much more expensive? I think we used to just value it more highly. Most safety regulations don’t cost very much. The vast majority of any project is labor, and modern equipment means you need 1/10000th of the manual labor that you used to need to build a dam or bridge.


It’s true, now you just need 100 times as many layers of management.


When they built the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, they stretched a safety net under the bridge, to catch workers who fell off. (It was actually hurricane fence but may as well call it a net.) That thing saved the lives of dozens of men. And that was the first time in American history that a major civil engineering project had included such an elementary safety measure. The first guy it saved was named Albert Zampa, and the guys who were saved by the net called themselves the Halfway to Hell Club.


The modern equipment is more expensive, in part, because manufacturing it costs more than making equipment of that type used to. Partly because of the increase in laws and regulations to safeguard workers who make that modern equipment.

And before anyone gets the wrong idea, no, I am NOT complaining about worker-safety related laws and regulations. I’m all for them. I used to work on farms, in construction, with electrical systems, and in unskilled labor jobs. I’ve had jobs which were terribly dangerous. I’ve come closer than I like to remember, more than once, to getting killed by common ordinary garden variety everyday run of the mill job hazards. I’m in favor of just about anything that makes it easier for workers to keep their hides intact.


I find myself reminded of the novel Slim by William Wister Haines. It is about a lineman and later railroad electrification worker.

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I think we’re talking about different things. I’m talking about machinery used to build the stuff. Like, if you look at the photos of the Hoover Dam construction, you see thousands and thousands of men with shovels, spreading concrete and moving earth. Nowadays all that work is done with a half-dozen concrete pumps and a dozen excavators. Concrete pumps and excavators are expensive, but they are capital costs, amortized over many projects (with depreciation reclaimed on taxes). Compared to labor, technology is basically free. Even in modern high-tech construction projects, labor is still the biggest cost. Labor has always been expensive, but projects have gotten cheaper as we’ve found ways to reduce labor.

Safety laws are tangential to all of that, despite what the companies would have us believe.


I don’t imagine that the work is much different today, except there is safety gear for the climbing workers, and the tractors have cabs with AC and rollover protection. It would be difficult to do this job with fewer workers.


There are simple, cheap safety procedures (wearing a harness, clipping in) that are just completely absent from the entirety of this project.

And I bet the first guy who brought one to a work site of his own accord would be made fun of. And/or the supervisor would look down on him: for causing “inefficiency”, due to the scant extra seconds required for its use; for raising insecurity among the others who didn’t have such equipment.


There are also a lot of procedures that have to followed to make sure nobody flips a switch and sends 40,000 V down those lines while people are working on them. In the power plant where I worked, ‘hold tags’ were treated like padlocks. If a switch was tagged, you had to go through a whole hierarchy of approvals from management and the union before you could remove the tag and flip the switch.


This. However, retrofitting for safety regulations when you’ve been operating for decades without them can be very expensive. I work with small startup manufacturers (distillers) who are exempt or under the radar for a lot of regulations. Getting them to add a line item to their business plan for OSHA and HACCP plans is nearly impossible. It would cost any of them <$20K to have a robust plan that would take them through 50+ employees including any materials and equipment, yet I haven’t convinced a single client.

Conversely, my former employer received 2 OSHA negligence fines totaling $70k for things I had been warning them about for years.


Around a decade ago I saw a string of pylons going up with a helicopter lifting pre-fabricated bits in.


I used to daydream about buying one of these towers for scrap prices, then building it on some land just to have a cool lookout tower to picnic on.

Dammit, this video has me wanting that again!


I don’t know about the UK, but in the US, new high tension towers are usually made from a small number of pieces and simply raised into place with a crane, rather than assembled from many pieces on site. You see the same thing in bridges, rather than using truss structures large box-beams are more common.

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Presumably, the road was shortened if you were the person who tagged it out to begin with? I don’t work in a power plant, but I do work around medium-voltage (<=13.8 kV) equipment. The rule where I work is pretty much that anyone working in the space puts his lock and tag on the breaker - sometimes we have these big hasps with a dozen guy’s locks on them - and you don’t energize until the last guy removes his lock.

And yeah, if something happens and the worker who locked and tagged it isn’t available, then there’s a bureaucratic nightmare. I had a whole lab shut down for a week because one guy had a sudden medical emergency (unrelated to the equipment) and was evacuated with his lock and tag still in place. If I remember right, EHS, Security, the union, the lab manager, and the guy’s boss (and there may have been others) all had to hold a big powwow right in the area to verify that the guy was accounted for and elsewhere and that nobody was working on the equipment using the absent guy’s lock.

Stilll better than electrocuting someone.


Read more about his remarkable life at Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge Association.

I got to meet some of his family at the inauguration of the bike path on the Carquinez bridge now named for him.


The ‘crane,’ as you put it is a gin pole. They’re still used to hoist segmented towers, whether with a powered winch or your 20 strong guys on a rope. With a powered winch, it’s easier to use prefab sections rather than bolt/weld up a tower from individual girders and beams, but you still have a gin pole hoisting them. (Helicopters are usually reserved for sites where for one reason or another you can’t haul the materials overland. They’re expensive.)

You really don’t want to visit a site where tower work is in progress. Nobody wants to climb all the way to the ground just to take a leak, so gardyloo!

I had a (volunteer!) job to do in conditions like this once, except that the antenna was 60 feet up a 100-foot tower on the roof of a 24-storey building. Ice load had wrecked a VHF antenna, and I was doing a field-expedient repair. Soldering with a torch way up in the air in that kind of storm is … a trifle interesting. I didn’t tell my then-fiancée about it until afterward. She married me anyway.