Engaging in Safety
Electric co-ops utilize tool for continuous improvement in safety practices
From lineworkers to the CEO, the Central Electric Cooperative team takes safety seriously. Photos by James Pratt
It’s a cool, breezy morning in western Oklahoma. The sun is still rising, and coffee is already brewing as line crews and inside employees arrive at their electric cooperative building, ready to tackle whatever the day brings. The morning started with some new faces pulling into the parking lot at CKenergy Electric Cooperative’s Binger and Cordell offices. A team of six employees from other cooperatives has come to CKenergy for an unannounced on-site observation visit by the Rural Electric Safety Achievement Program (RESAP). The co-op’s Safety Coordinator Johnny Jones greets the team with a smile and offers warm cups of coffee. Jones knows the purpose of the on-site observation; it’s not an audit, but the benefit of having fresh eyes look at the co-op’s overall safety program and identify strengths as well as opportunities for improvement. Armed with clipboards, pens and the “Onsite Observation Worksheets,” RESAP team members start their evaluation outside near a fleet of bucket trucks. Once they conduct observations about the truck fleet, pole yard, warehouses and mechanical shops (if applicable), they move inside the co-op as line crews head out to the field.
“Our purpose is to recognize areas of strength and identify areas in which our co-ops can grow in their safety practices,” Derec Janaway, RESAP area administrator and safety & loss control director at the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, said. “By involving employees from other cooperatives, we are fostering continuous learning as co-ops share best practices and help each other build a safer work environment.”
RESAP… say what?!
RESAP is a national safety program administered by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and the statewide association, which for Oklahoma is the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives (OAEC). The program is intended to be a tool for electric co-ops across the nation; it provides a framework for continuous improvement in safety performance and culture at all operational levels of an electric cooperative: from line workers and engineers, to accountants and member service reps, all the way to senior leadership and the co-op board. The program was initially developed in 1967 and has evolved significantly over the years to be a more effective tool for electric cooperatives. According to Bud Branham, director of safety programs at NRECA, RESAP has evolved from a three-year accreditation program focused on a single point grading score to a more engaging tool that focuses on building leadership commitment, increasing employee involvement and providing honest feedback for continuous improvement.
“This tool (RESAP) is effective if we are all engaged. It needs to be applied with diligence and sincerity by co-op leaders. It cannot be a matter of ‘checking the boxes,’” Branham said.
Nationwide, more than 670 electric co-ops participate in the RESAP program; Branham says the last four to five years have seen a 22% increase in co-op participation.
“Sending everyone home safely to their families is a priority for us,” Clint Pack, CEO at CKenergy Electric Cooperative, said. “In some cases, you don’t get a second chance. Investing in safety is the right thing to do; if we don’t, we will pay a much higher price.”
How does the program work? NRECA provides an online module for RESAP area administrators to monitor the progress at each electric cooperative engaged in RESAP. In Oklahoma, all distribution electric cooperatives participate. The program is comprised of five steps: 1) ‘Leadership Commitment,’ which encourages the CEO’s active participation and dedication to a culture of safety; 2) Undertake a ‘Safety Health Check,’ which co-ops complete to help them make an internal evaluation of their safety practices; 3) Provide annual safety performance measurements; 4) An ‘Onsite Observation Visit,’ to be conducted every three years; preferably, the on-site observation visits will be unannounced to allow the team to gain as much knowledge as possible about the day-to-day operations of the co-op and to provide constructive feedback. Each on-site observation (which could last up to two days) wraps up with a conference in which co-op leaders and employees engage in discussions with the observation team regarding the findings from the visit; they also receive a written report with actionable goals to be addressed; 5) The final step is to update or develop a ‘Safety Improvement Plan,’ which gives co-ops a platform to document safety improvement efforts, involve their employees and monitor progress on key areas to achieve higher levels of safety performance.
Putting it into practice … in our backyard
At Central Electric Cooperative based in Stillwater, CEO Hunter Robinson understands the importance of safety all too well. Robinson started at the co-op on the right-of-way crew and moved his way up to lineman, foreman, director of energy services, vice president of engineering and now chief executive officer.
“I understand how important it is for employees to know their upper management cares about safety within the organization,” Robinson said. “Safety should be more than a once-a-month conversation. It’s important for management to engage in meetings and show they care. When employees see things are happening based on their feedback and concerns, they feel valued. When there is a disconnect, it’s not effective. Leaders must be connected.”
Recently, Central hosted a statewide RESAP training facilitated by OAEC; employees from other cooperatives attended to learn more about the program. According to Jeff Denton, safety director, safety is a core value at Central. Denton, who was a lineman for 26 years, ensures every employee has a copy of the co-op’s emergency action plan, which is updated every two years. Denton says the co-op holds at least six all-employee safety meetings a year and more frequent meetings for field personnel. Additionally, employees go through fire drills, tornado drills and active shooter training. All of these efforts are a part of enhancing safety awareness and achievement through RESAP standards.
“RESAP is an invaluable tool for co-ops, and it is not only for linemen. The program ensures every co-op employee works in a safe environment.”
- Heath Martin, Northfork Electric Cooperative
“RESAP is important to me because it lets other eyes come into our facility and get a fresh look at things I may be overlooking every day,” Denton said. “Co-ops take a lot of pride in their facilities, but it’s important to realize there’s always room for improvement.”
Jackie Berna, Central’s vice president of system operations, agrees. In his 37th year at the co-op, Berna says he understands “it still stings a little” when a co-op hears the report from the on-site observation and suggestions for improvement, but he says the feedback is necessary for the growth of the co-op.
“We are all prone to become complacent,” Berna said. “The RESAP program keeps us accountable and keeps us in check with safety procedures and practices. Plus, it’s always amazing what we can learn from other co-ops through the process.”
Not a one-time performance … a lifestyle
One of the attributes of the RESAP program is to invite the participation of employees of various capacities. Diversity is important and fosters a stronger buy-in to safety practices. To provide an opportunity for co-op employees to participate, the statewide association, OAEC, hosts RESAP trainings once or twice a year at various electric cooperatives to go over the specifics of the program and equip interested employees to serve on future RESAP observation teams at sister cooperatives. Under Janaway’s direction, OAEC conducts nine RESAP on-site observations a year. Collectively, nearly 36 co-op employees actively participate in RESAP visits as team members or team leaders.
“It’s very important for co-ops to take this to heart,” Janaway said. “We need everyone to take ownership and strengthen their co-op’s safety culture.”
Ryan Blackburn, manager of logistics at Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC) based in Norman, decided to practice the RESAP principles as a lifestyle for him and his department. Blackburn has been with OEC for 20 years and currently overseas the purchasing, inventory and shipping materials for the electric side as well as the fiber operations of the co-op’s subsidiary, OEC Fiber. A supporter of the RESAP program, Blackburn instills safety values in his team and tries to hire new team members who share similar values.
“We shouldn’t have to ‘clean up’ two months before a RESAP visit; we should keep our workplaces organized and clean every day. It’s more efficient and generates a safer work environment,” Blackburn said.
Heath Martin with Northfork Electric Cooperative based in Sayre, Oklahoma, had a near-death experience when he came in contact with an energized power line in 2001. Today, Martin is the co-op’s safety director and a strong supporter of the RESAP program. Like Blackburn, Martin believes following RESAP standards should be a daily practice.
“Back in the day, we used to prepare extensively for a RESAP on-site visit, but in reality, we need to be this prepared and organized all year-round,” Martin said. “RESAP is an invaluable tool for co-ops, and it is not only for linemen. The program ensures every co-op employee works in a safe environment.”
Co-op employees desire to see many more Oklahoma sunrises on their way to work—sometimes with a warm cup of coffee in their hands—always knowing their co-ops care about their safe return to their families each evening.