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Obsessed With Safety

Ever since I visited an electric substation recently, I’ve been thinking about safety. While the engineers unlocked the gates, I couldn’t help but notice all the signs warning of the deadly danger inside the chain-link fence.

I’ll admit it—I still get nervous every time I’m around high-voltage electricity. But I knew I could trust my life to these trained professionals. Safety is an attitude that is always front and center among the people who bring you reliable electric service.

Staying safe is not easy.

Bill Corum, president and CEO of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives (KAEC), says, “Electricity is completely different from all the other things in your life. Electricity is a commodity that goes against your very senses—you can’t touch it, see it, smell it, or hear it. If it shorts out, you can see a spark, but otherwise you do not know if it’s flowing, you do not know if you are in the midst of it. Everyone must be alert at all times.”

Everybody on their toes
Chris Perry, president and CEO at Fleming-Mason Energy in Flemingsburg, says, “In our job, there are so many pressures trying to keep rates low and keep the lights on all the time. I’m responsible for about 50,000 people who are members of our co-op, and the 25 linemen out there working. That’s what keeps me up at night—I’m worried about them getting hurt.”

Perry says, “We have a big responsibility and I talk with our linemen about this all the time—there is no compromising safety to get something done fast. We cannot let this slip, we’ve always got to keep safety at the forefront.”

As chairman of KAEC’s Safety Subcommittee, Perry says, “The best safety programs are the ones that are built on understanding and trust. This is not an adversarial thing, management versus the workers. We are all in this together. Everyone should feel comfortable talking about what they need to do to be safe.”

Perry says, “Safety is more than wearing protective equipment. Safety is any place where a person is at risk of injury. That could be climbing a ladder, using a forklift, walking inside the office—we must think about safety everywhere, all the time.”

Clarence Greene, director of KAEC’s Safety and Loss Prevention Division, says, “Our job is to keep everybody on their toes. Whether it’s linemen doing ‘hot’ work from a bucket truck or reminding the public to stay away from power lines, our goal is to keep people from getting hurt.”

All year long, Greene and three other team members travel through the state presenting safety review lessons, as well as performing safety audits to help local co-ops improve their safety programs.

“In the electric utility business, we spend more time driving than we spend working on the wires, so this year we’ve put together a special program with safe driving tips,” Greene says. “Backing up a bucket truck or any kind of vehicle, especially at night or on rugged terrain, takes special skills.” The program is so popular, co-ops from as far away as Alabama have asked Greene to share it with them.

Beginning with a “safety moment”
Sharing safety ideas includes the organizations that generate and transmit electricity to the local co-ops. Two years ago, East Kentucky Power Cooperative, which provides power to 16 co-ops in 87 counties, began a new approach.

East Kentucky President and CEO Tony Campbell says, “Safety is not about numbers on reports—it’s about the people. I did not want to risk a catastrophic accident to one of our employees. So our executive team set about changing the culture here.”

In addition to figuring out what went wrong after an incident occurs, the new program also focuses on stopping unsafe behaviors before they put someone in danger. In the new culture it’s okay—actually, it is now expected and encouraged—to remind co-workers and even supervisors of the right way to do things before problems happen. At East Kentucky Power Co-op, friendly “safety conversations” are now a way of life.

“The most surprising thing to me,” Campbell says, “was how quickly our employees got engaged and changed our culture. This has had a positive impact on our entire company. It’s top-down and bottom-up, with everyone involved.” At any one time about 10 percent of East Kentucky’s work force is serving on one of five safety committees.

East Kentucky’s new safety program includes daily e-mail safety reminders, safety decals on vending machines and in other highly visible spots, “target zero” emblems on hard hats, plus special events and programs geared toward safety. And every East Kentucky Power Co-op meeting, no matter what the topic or purpose, begins with a “safety moment,” a quick but serious reminder of good work habits and procedures. The effort to work safely also includes reminders for all outside contractors who work alongside EKPC employees.


Marty Littrel, managing director of Communications and Community Relations at Big Rivers Electric co-op, which generates and transmits electric power for three local distribution co-ops, says, “Safety is our number one core value. We take safety seriously and are getting good results, with our plants consistently operating for more than 1 million man-hours without a lost-time incident. Our three generating plants have earned 32 Kentucky Governor’s Safety Awards, and our Coleman generation facility received back-to-back Operation Excellence awards in 2012 and 2013, from Navigant Generation Knowledge Service (GKS)…Coleman station is the number one small coal-fired plant in the nation.”

Energy journalist NANCY GRANT is a member of the Cooperative Communicators Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. 

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