While electric cooperatives constantly warn the public to stay away from power lines, co-op workers whose jobs include installing, maintaining, and repairing those lines must work in danger zones where one wrong move can result in instant death. During the last decade, worker safety has received renewed attention at the national level and in every state.
“Overall, we can see a real positive direction of improvement,” says Dudley Bottom Jr., president of Shelby Energy Cooperative, based in Shelbyville. “But there’s something unique that happens in our industry. Things go along very well for many months or even years, then a catastrophic accident will happen, so we have to keep the attention level high at all times. We are trying to make safety a culture, a way of life in every situation.”
Bottom chairs the statewide safety subcommittee of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives (KAEC).
Member co-ops are promoting electric safety in two ways. For the consumer, co-ops recommend the information presented at the Web site www.safeelectricity.com, which includes materials for the general public as well as teachers.
For co-op workers, a variety of initiatives is already helping improve safety.
About 10 years ago, Kentucky’s electric co-ops joined together in one self-insured workers’ compensation program. Bottom says, “That gave us the ability to share information among ourselves about where and when accidents happen. As we’ve examined this broad database, we’ve been able to customize our safety programs and target the areas where we need improvement.”
KAEC Safety Instructor Bill Massey and three other instructors travel throughout Kentucky to conduct safety meetings and workshops.
“Most of our trouble is back injuries, slips, and falls, so we try to address those kinds of ordinary problems,” Massey says, “but the main issue is that electricity is dangerous. Catastrophic accidents involving contact with electricity are either deadly or leave the worker so injured that he or she may not be able to return to work.”
Field audits and inspections are a major part of KAEC’s safety professionals’ jobs. In some situations, workers must work on an electrical line while it is “hot,” that is, it has electricity flowing through it. Massey says, “When we do field audits, we want to make sure that each person uses the proper PPE—personal protective equipment, including rubber gloves and rubber sleeves—and that they also use the proper cover-up for an energized line. In every electrical contact case we’ve investigated, we’ve found that one of these items was missing.”
Massey notes that in some situations it’s a better idea for workers to de-energize a line before starting a job. In that case, proper grounding techniques must be applied, and then a worker may skip the rubber gloves and sleeves. Unfortunately, there have been cases where a de-energized line being worked on was not properly grounded, then became re-energized, causing a situation that could injure or kill a worker. Therefore, field safety inspectors pay special attention to these kinds of situations, always looking for proper techniques—and pointing out even the slightest variations from correct practices.
Robert Marshall, president of Owen Electric Cooperative, based in Owenton, says, “Our first course of action is to change the mindset of our workers, to reinforce the idea that you cannot take shortcuts. Our co-op’s board of directors has a commitment to training and I have a ‘tough love’ approach to safety. I tell people, ‘If you expect to work here, you’d better expect to follow the rules or I’m going to fire you.’”
Marshall’s attitude is tough—but the co-op also provides the training and encouragement to help its 10 construction crews and nine servicemen know the rules and put them into practice.
Owen Electric Manager of Safety Tony Dempsey schedules regular safety meetings at job sites with work crews, using the safety van. A cross between a mobile office and an RV, the box van’s interior has been customized to include a TV, VCR, computer hookup, desk, table with bench seats, and a cooler for soft drinks and light snacks. The meeting area also has heating and air conditioning, so it’s a comfortable spot to learn and talk.
In August, Dempsey drove out to Pendleton County where a line crew was relocating a 7,200-volt primary line to give clearance in a rural area where a new trailer home will soon be located.
Dempsey watched as the crew finished the job for the day, then the four men of the crew put away their tools and came into the van. Dempsey began the session with a PowerPoint presentation on the computer about chain saw safety. Throughout the program, Dempsey and the men paused to talk about the issues involved, with a good exchange of anecdotes about what really happens on a job.
“When we conduct these safety meetings in small groups in the field,” Dempsey says, “it promotes open and honest communication because you are in a more personal situation with the men. Some people just aren’t comfortable speaking up in a larger group situation, so this smaller group gives them the confidence to say what’s on their minds.”
Away from the office, the discussion sometimes turns to “near misses.” Confronting the times when a worker didn’t use good judgment or safe practices is an important step in improving safety awareness—and changing procedures the next time.
Sometimes the men share with Dempsey good, practical safety ideas, so the exchange of ideas goes both ways. They often discuss the latest models of safety equipment they’ve read or heard about from other workers, or things they’ve learned while attending other workshops.
Every three months Dempsey drives the safety van over to nearby Shelby Energy Co-op to share information with their workers, too.
Dempsey says, “Lots of small things, an afternoon here, a workshop there—it all adds to an improved awareness of safety. This is the kind of culture co-ops want to instill in all employees all the time.”
Next month: Digital utilities