Less than two dozen utilities in the United States will let their workers touch live power lines barehanded. It’s extremely dangerous and requires special equipment, but it lets those utilities provide uninterrupted power to peoples’ homes. So men and women don suits and gloves woven with steel fibers, raise themselves hundreds of feet in the air, and grab onto lightning.
The danger is obvious even before any worker gets near a live line. Just extend a hand towards something surging with that much current and tens of thousands of volts will arc across open air, making you look like Emperor Palpatine.
To be clear, this “barehanding” of power lines is incredibly perilous, but doable. It is only a nuanced understanding of physics and electromagnetism that can ensure a lineman or woman doesn’t ride the lightning.
You don’t want to be part of a completed circuit, at least not one where you are the resistor. When people get electrocuted — death by electric shock — it’s typically because electrons moved through them from a point of high voltage to a low point. That low point of voltage is almost always the Earth, and therefore the exit for many of our harnessed electricity is a “grounded” outlet.
If there is no lower voltage point, then electricity is not compelled to flow. That’s the secret to barehanding. Lifted in large bucket trucks, linemen first make sure that the power lines have actual contact with the bucket itself. This brings the bucket, which is insulated from the truck and the ground by a fiberglass boom arm, up to the same energy potential as the power line. Anyone standing in the bucket in turn becomes as energized as the lines they work on.
A specialized suit woven with strands of steel (along with conductive-soled boots, a jumper, a hooded shirt, gloves and socks) allows any errant electricity from the power lines to flow around and not through working bodies. There is still a large electrical field popping and snapping in the air, and arcs of tens of thousands of volts are able to jump from line to finger or hand.
In only the safest of circumstances can linemen play Palpatine.