Keeping crews safe and power flowing

Lineworkers handle 7,200-volt power lines daily, and while that can become routine, workers should never take the hazards of the work for granted. Electric cooperatives across the country actively work on one of their greatest challenges – keeping employees safe.

That’s why the Commitment to Zero Contacts program has become a central component of safety training for electric co-ops throughout the U.S. Developed as a joint initiative by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and Federated Rural Electric Insurance Cooperative in 2017, it was introduced to electric co-ops the following spring as a major focus of safety awareness.

“Since April 2018, more than 570 CEOs of electric co-ops have endorsed the goals of the program,” said Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety programs. “These commitments center on reviewing current safety efforts against the initial findings and adjusting where possible to mitigate risk. It is not meant to be a top-down initiative, and the real value comes through involving employees as part of the commitment.”

“One of our greatest challenges is overcoming the mindset of complacency and overconfidence,” said Thad France, AIEC manager of lineworker and apprentice development, noting that both can erode overall safety awareness. “If we can get them to believe it could actually happen to them, that is the major accomplishment—maybe the most important one that we could ever achieve.”

The consequences of an incident in this industry are high, and safety awareness requires much more than lectures, memos and discussions. Co-op safety instructors use a variety of techniques to make safety awareness personal and encourage lineworkers and other employees to regularly discuss safety concerns.

Family acts as a regular reminder for co-op employees to stay safe. In the breakrooms and gear rooms of several co-ops, family photos hang on the walls to remind crews that one mistake can be fatal.

To help put perspective on safety, many Illinois cooperatives have invited former Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative Lineman Gerry Kinney to speak to employees. In 2015, Kinney had an accidental contact with a 7,200-volt power line. The accident resulted in loss of both of his arms and a life forever changed. His personal testimony puts safety foremost in their minds.

Reinforcing safety fundamentals is key, and co-op safety instructors look for ways to interject Commitment to Zero Contacts into regular discussions and training lessons.

According to France, Commitment to Zero Contacts is stressed throughout training programs for apprentice lineworkers.

“We’re encouraging conversations about safety during job briefings, and that includes thorough inspection of personal protection equipment before work gets underway,” said France. “Crews do it as a group activity, and that creates some peer pressure to do it well, but it also sets aside allotted time to allow for tool and gear inspections.”

Across the country, electric co-op employees remain committed to safety for all. When co-op crews are protected and ready to get the job done, members can count on the safe, reliable power they depend on.

Read Kinney’s story in the October 2018 issue of Illinois Country Living.