By Pam Blair
Nearly two decades ago, Northfork Electric Cooperative’s Heath Martin survived a 7,200-volt shock on the job. He admits the accident was his fault.
Heath and his co-worker, Chad Crompton, had worked all night, then were called to a routine outage.
Heath says he was thinking about an upcoming fishing trip with his buddies.
“I was in a hurry, but it was no reason to take a shortcut,” he says.
Heath suffered severe burns to his hands and face, resulting in skin grafts, multiple surgeries and physical therapy.
“Grounding that line down would have taken me maybe five minutes at the most,” says Heath, who now is safety director at the Oklahoma co-op. “I just made a bad decision that day.”
Although the overall injury rate has fallen dramatically, serious injuries and fatalities among electric cooperative lineworkers are happening with alarming regularity, says Bud Branham, director of safety for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
“Research shows you can have the best injury rates in the world, but you can still fall victim to a catastrophic incident,” Bud says. “We must all remain focused.”
A nationwide survey of 51,000 co-op employees conducted annually between 2006 and 2015 found an average of more than 23 serious injuries and fatalities, which is defined as any claim greater than $100,000—“a life-altering event for an employee,” Bud says.
“The No. 1 cause of claims—40 percent—are electrical contacts that result from failure to use appropriate personal protective equipment or insulated covers, or to test and ground facilities—the lifesaving rules everyone has been taught,” Bud says. “It’s like blocking and tackling in football. There are always pressures to take shortcuts. As we become more skilled, we become less risk-aware. The simpler the task, the less our brain focuses on it. With fast-brain thinking, we skip steps.”
Especially during outage restoration work, the tendency is to “hurry up and get it done,” Bud says, noting the thought pattern can be, “I’ll just do it this one time. It won’t hurt me.”
Sometimes it doesn’t. Other times it does. Either way, it’s a trend safety leaders across the country want to stop.
In April 2018, NRECA, Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange and electric co-op statewide safety leaders introduced the voluntary Commitment to Zero Contacts initiative.
It is designed to provide CEOs, senior leaders and field personnel with resources to help eliminate serious injuries and fatalities due to electrical contact and enhance co-op safety programs.
The campaign provides a toolkit of resources, including field guides, videos, logos and written commitment forms.
One aspect of the campaign is a downloadable job-planning app—Stop and Focus Everyday—for use on mobile devices. It requires step-by-step acknowledgement of the life-saving rules of the job, with a goal of building and reinforcing safe work habits.
Use of the app encourages crew leaders to stop, focus and review crucial risk factors that could lead to employee contacts. The app also provides efficient job planning processes for energized work, outage restoration and daily tasks.
Job-briefing data is automatically submitted to Federated’s website with a time and date stamp. It is accessible in real-time and searchable by date, time, submitting employee, job type or job number so it can be used for training.
“We must do job planning on all jobs,” Bud says. “The worst accidents tend to happen during routine jobs where risk awareness declines and complacency is more likely. They know they need to do certain things, but do they?
“If we can get crews to increase job briefings to 100 percent of the time, we will decrease accidents. If you follow these rules every single time, you will go home with your arms, legs and life.”
Creating a strong culture of safety helps mitigate the risk at all levels.
Wells Rural Electric Co. in northeastern Nevada has signed onto the Commitment to Zero Contacts initiative and uses the S.A.F.E. app.
“We’ve been very dedicated at WREC to making sure our job briefings are religiously filled out,” says Foreman Jacob Manning. “The one thing that is etched into our heads from day one is that electricity will kill you. Being safe can be a matter of life and death.”
Jacob says it is important to him to make sure all of his guys are safe, that they understand the job at hand and the hazards associated with every job.
“Regardless of how high or low on the totem pole a guy might be, every person always has a say in what we are doing and the ability to ask any questions about the job or any hazards they might not understand,” Jacob says. “It’s important every single person involved understands exactly what we’re doing.”
At the end of the day, the priority must be safety and doing everything possible to make sure their linemen go home to their families, says WREC CEO Clay Fitch.
“Our guys do a great job in terms of the quality of their work, attention to their training and observing safety on the job,” Clay says. “We owe it to them and to their families waiting at home to give them the tools they need to build a culture of safety. That’s really the benefit of Commitment to Zero Contacts and the S.A.F.E. app. It’s about creating a constant awareness of safety.”
A Positive Spin on Safety
Commitment to Zero Contacts suggests co-ops avoid a “bad cop” mentality and instead focus on a system wide approach that helps them:
- Clarify and define life-saving rules
- Verify use of life-saving rules
- Create effective job planning on all jobs, including the routine
- Form a structured safety management process
- Seek employee involvement