Creating a Culture of Safety

Why are linemen driven by safety?

Creating a Culture of Safety

From left: Choctaw Electric linemen Colton Scott, Ryan Bryant, Norvin Graham, Darren Frazier, and Dakota Young make a “tailgate review” prior to starting the day’s work. Photo by James Pratt

Story Highlights

Creating a culture of safety requires a continued focus on training and education.


NRECA recently developed a program called “Speak Up, Listen Up” to teach co-op workers to speak up when they see something unsafe.

Oklahomans are familiar with severe weather and the damage it can cause. Most have experienced power outages at least once. What some might not realize is the safety hazards electric cooperative linemen face when repairing damage to powerlines immediately after—or sometimes during—a storm. Working as an electric lineman is an inherently dangerous job. These hardy individuals regularly labor in the incessant Oklahoma wind, braving torrential rain, finger-freezing snow, and skin-blistering summer heat. Not only do they work in challenging conditions, linemen must deal with thousands of volts of live electricity that can injure or kill an individual as a result of a single mistake. 

It is not a job for the faint of heart.

Bill Graham, safety and loss coordinator at Indian Electric Cooperative in Cleveland, Okla., says it best: “We work in a very unforgiving industry. If a person makes a mistake, it can cost lives and they may not get a second chance.” How do these hard-working individuals stay safe in such a dangerous job? By creating a culture of safety.

According to Kenny Guffey, director of safety and loss control at the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives (OAEC), safety must be a part of everything that happens at an electric cooperative.

“Safety cannot be an afterthought,” Guffey explains. “It has to be something that is embedded in the organization, at every step of the way.”

While working with powerlines in the electric industry can be dangerous, attention to detail and a focus on safety can mitigate the risks involved. 

Increased Risks in the Electric Industry

As people and businesses have become more dependent on electricity for their everyday functions, the power grid has become critical to our economy. Gone are the days when major powerlines can be brought offline for repairs. Today’s linemen are often working with live power lines, often with tens or hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity pulsing down the wire, ready to strike in the event of a single mistake.

“Linemen are increasingly working with live powerlines,” Guffey says. “They seldom have the luxury of taking a circuit offline to work on it.”

Linemen must make use of personal protective equipment such as insulated gloves, sleeves and line covers to protect themselves from the dangers of high voltage. Newer trucks are designed to isolate the boom and bucket from the ground, thereby allowing the linemen to work high in the air on live lines, like a bird on a wire. All these devices must be regularly inspected for safety. Something as minor as a hole in a glove can cause serious injury or even death. Trucks used for working on live powerlines must be tested for electrical integrity at least once a year. Booms must be kept clean from dirt and oil lest high voltage electricity be conducted down the boom pole to the ground, possibly injuring the lineman or a person on the ground.

The Cost of Injury

“It is impossible to measure the true cost in terms of dollars when there has been the loss of a valued co-worker,” says Corey Parr, vice president of safety and loss prevention for Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange, an organization that provides insurance to electric cooperatives and helps co-ops manage risk and lower injury rates. “The emotional and personal impacts are immeasurable.”

The organization recently created a voluntary reporting program on their website, similar to the FAA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System. Workers can report unusual safety incidents to this database—anonymously if they like. This allows the consolidation and study of safety issues that linemen encounter in the field every day, and allows Federated and others to create training programs designed to mitigate these safety issues. 

“We encourage everyone at our co-ops to report unusual safety issues they run across,” explains Greg Hambrick, western area safety coordinator for OAEC. “We then use this information in our safety briefings and course development. We get reports ranging from a lineman getting bit by a dog to someone pulling a gun on a lineman while working on a powerline. We can track trends and provide training around these safety issues.”

Using programs developed by Federated and other organizations like the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) helps reduce financial and emotional impact from injuries on an organization and community.

NRECA recently developed a program called “Speak Up, Listen Up” to teach co-op workers to speak up when they see something unsafe. Whether it’s an ungrounded line, a wet floor or an incomplete safety check, they should bring up the item and discuss it with others at the cooperative.

In years past, the senior lineman on a crew was considered the ultimate authority and the final answer when working on a project. A junior lineman might be reluctant to speak up and ask safety questions. The aviation industry experienced the same phenomenon—while a left seat captain might have many thousands of hours in command of a passenger jet, the co-pilot might be fairly new and only have a couple of thousand hours and would often be reluctant to speak up or mention a problem to a senior captain. Aviation safety studies show safety is improved when everyone on a crew is taught to speak up and participate in the safety process, with the senior captain still having the final decision.

Linemen experience a similar situation. As part of  “Speak Up, Listen Up,” junior linemen are taught to “speak up” while senior linemen are taught to “listen up.” This is designed to get everyone involved in safety issues and teaches linemen, as well as office staff, to communicate about safety issues before accidents happen.

“The goal of ‘Speak Up, Listen Up’ is to encourage everyone at the co-op—from the oldest most experienced lineman to the youngest employee—to speak up if they see something that doesn’t look right,” Guffey says. “The ‘listen up’ portion of the program teaches older, more experienced people to listen and respond to the younger folks.”

Safety Strategies

Creating a culture of safety requires a continued focus on training and education. Most co-ops dedicate an employee to the job of safety director. This person conducts trainings, organizes safety committees, investigates safety violations and reports on the overall progress of an organization’s safety initiatives to management.

In addition, OAEC provides statewide resources to assist with training. Guffey and his team of safety professionals regularly provide training to both cooperative linemen and office staff. In addition, they conduct Rural Electric Safety Achievement Program (RESAP) inspections to certify each cooperative meets national safety standards.

RESAP was initially developed as the Rural Electric Safety Accreditation Program in 1967. The primary goal of RESAP is to reduce injuries over time. The program’s inspections and re-certifications are conducted every three years in Oklahoma.  

In 2010, the NRECA board of directors enhanced the program to focus on continuous safety improvements based on performance feedback. Co-ops are encouraged to incorporate RESAP into their daily operations so safety improvement happens constantly rather than only during the RESAP inspections.

According to Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety and loss control programs, revisions in the RESAP program have gained momentum over the past three years because of widespread support from statewide associations’ safety and loss control staffs.

“They’ve encouraged the adoption of the new approach at the co-op level and have helped develop safety programs focused on continuous improvement.

“The challenge is always honestly evaluating your current state of safety performance, then involving your employees to help make improvements,” Branham adds. “This supports the development of your safety improvement plan and helps make the overall commitment to safety even stronger.”

Choctaw Electric Cooperative based in Hugo, Okla., has adopted this approach. Guy Dale, director of safety and loss, says the co-op has created a RESAP inspection committee that meets regularly; each month the committee reviews a different aspect of the organization to ensure it is meeting safety standards and to find ways to improve the safety of the co-op’s operations.

The benefits to this continuous focus on safety have been clear. According to Dale, Choctaw Electric’s most recent RESAP inspection was one of the best Guffey has ever seen.

State safety coordinators like Hambrick go out to each cooperative nine times per year for outdoor linemen safety training and perform an average of four training classes per year for indoor office staff. They use a variety of training materials from a wide range of sources. While some of the training materials come from NRECA, materials are also developed at OAEC headquarters in Oklahoma City and shared with its member systems throughout the state. OAEC is member of the National Safety Council and uses training materials from the Oklahoma Safety Council.

“Co-op folks are really good about sharing safety information,” Guffey says. “I go to national training seminars twice a year and listen to presentations by other co-ops on safety issues they have encountered. They will include training materials on a thumb drive and pass it out to other co-ops, sharing important training materials they have developed.” A federal organization that helps ensure safe working conditions is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Every electric cooperative incorporates OSHA initiatives in their training programs. 

OSHA requires each line crew to perform a five-item checklist before each job. The lead lineman runs through this pre-job “tailgate” briefing with the crew. It covers everything from the job requirements to personal protection equipment. One checklist item on a tailgate briefing when working with live power is to ensure the safety breakers are set to “one shot mode.” In normal operation, these devices try to re-energize a line three times before tripping off permanently. In one-shot mode, the breaker will trip only once and not reset until a lineman resets it manually.

Other OSHA programs include CPR training, fall protection, minimum approach distances, as well as guidelines for arc flash protection and standards for the manufacturing and testing of electrical protection equipment. 

Safety Begins at the Top

Creating a culture of safety is not something that happens overnight, or that starts and ends with the safety coordinator. It’s not limited to safety classes, checklists, or training videos.

“Safety can be summed up with one word—‘Attitude.’ The attitude of safety starts at the top,” Graham says. 

And at the top of the cooperative are the members, who must value safety. They elect board members who value safety. The board hires a CEO who must make safety a priority. The CEO consults with the board to fund and maintain specific safety programs. The CEO also must ensure supervisors and employees value and understand safety and make it a priority. From there it filters down to line crews, warehouse operators, office staff and even maintenance personnel. Creating a culture of safety requires buy-in from the entire organization, including the members.

“Safety means looking out for each other,” Graham says. “One day an employee might not be on the top of their game. It could be family problems, illness, or some other worry they have. As a result, they might not be totally focused on their job.

“Co-op employees are like family and look out for each other. If they see a fellow worker distracted or not feeling well, they might say, ‘You stay on the ground today and let me work the live powerline.’”

Dale sums up the priority of safety at Choctaw Electric this way: “Our primary goal is to ensure our people go home to their families each night.”

Safety is an ongoing process. Even though electric linemen work in an inherently dangerous environment, Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives have an envious safety record that continues to improve, thanks to the efforts of everyone involved—co-op members, board members, co-op management and employees, as well as leaders at the statewide and national level. By creating a culture focused on safety, these dedicated individuals provide power to even the smallest rural homeowner in the safest manner possible.  OKL Article End

James Pratt