Orange County REMC
CULTURE SHOW: HOW A COOPERATIVE CHANGED ITS APPROACH TO SAFETY
The accidental death of lineman Brent Minton in October 2012 hit Orange County REMC hard. In a way, the REMC went through the same kind of fundamental shift in culture as NASA following the Apollo 1 tragedy in January 1967. The parallels between the tragedies are coincidental but compelling.
Among the three astronauts who died in Apollo 1 was Gus Grissom. He was born and raised in Mitchell, along the northern edges of Orange County REMC’s service territory. Everyone at NASA knew space travel presented inherent dangers. But the three astronauts died during a dress rehearsal in their space capsule just sitting on the launch pad weeks before their scheduled flight. An unquestioned given — 100% oxygen used to pressurize the capsules since the first Mercury flights — burst into a flash fire by an arc in faulty wiring and consumed the trapped astronauts in seconds.
Likewise, line work is inherently dangerous. Safety requires full concentration full time by the full crew. REMCs all know this. There is little margin for error. But Minton’s death happened on the ground in the cooperative’s pole yard while loading poles for the day ahead. As a pole was being lifted overhead onto a truck, the wood chipped where the tong had its grip. The pole fell on Minton. It was the same type of dragging-type tong cooperatives had used to move poles since the 1930s (and is still in use by many Indiana electric cooperatives today). But that tool was never designed for loading poles by lifting them overhead, just for dragging them into place with a winch.
Unlike NASA which famously halted the Apollo program, Orange County REMC didn’t immediately address its safety culture. It continued about its business in the same fashion. As is often the case, it took fresh eyes and minds for changes to occur. Now, in the past few years, the cooperative’s safety culture has shifted.
- Overcome a long-standing culture of complacency, short cuts and “that’s-the-way-it’s-always-been-done” mindset.
- Build trust and mutual respect among line crews and supervisors before buy-in on major work habit changes could be made.
- Instill a deep commitment among all to “go by the book” to ensure safety for all.
- Put new people in leadership positions who share the same uncompromising philosophy on safety.
- Examine and rewrite the cooperative’s safety manual.
- Evaluate and elevate team members into new “lead lineman” supervisory positions who can further project the new safety culture and be accountable for safety at each worksite.
- Provide the necessary safety training to enhance skills and knowledge of those lead linemen.
- Purchase the trucks, tools and supplies required to fully equip crews to perform their jobs as expected.
- Upgrade and replace outdated and worn equipment as necessary to do the jobs as expected.
- Take time in the morning for the entire crew to discuss safety issues, such as near misses reported from the industry; to thoroughly preview the daily job assignments, site location and condition, etc., and discuss any concerns.
- Create an environment open to frank conversations that allows everyone to freely discuss safety issues and ensure proper procedures are followed.
- Safer work environment for crews and consumers as crews communicate better and work better together.
- Better harmony among the line crews and leadership with more mutual respect.
- Lower cooperative insurance premiums as safer work translates to a better “experience modifier” from Federated Insurance and, thus, lower rates.
- More pride among the entire cooperative family as outside observers talk about and share their stories as an example to inspire others.
In early 2015, Matt Deaton was newly hired at Orange County REMC. He was transitioning into the CEO position he would soon assume from the retiring one when the manager at another cooperative asked him if he felt Orange County was a safe place to work.
“On the surface, nothing set off a lot of alarms,” Deaton recalled. “The things we talked about with our linemen, and even the things I witnessed, made it seem the safety culture was there.”
On the surface, nothing set off a lot of alarms. The things we talked about with our linemen, and even the things I witnessed, made it seem the safety culture was there.Matt Deaton, Orange County REMC
Deaton knew of Minton’s accident from 2012. He knew they had trusted a piece of equipment, the dragging-style tongs, they shouldn’t have trusted for that job. But like many cooperatives around the country, they were still using it to load poles that same way. But that question by an outsider on the safety of his cooperative nagged him. “And that was the start of the journey,” he said. “I really started digging into the culture.”
What he found disturbed him. “By and large, we did have issues. We were going through the motions. We could say the right things when asked, and we could do the right things when someone was watching. But a vast amount of the time, especially for the linemen, there isn’t anyone watching. I did come to find out we were taking a lot of shortcuts.”
Deaton came to Orange County from outside the electric utility industry. The dangers of working with 7,200 volts was unfamiliar to him, but he didn’t need lessons in risk management. His education and experience encompassed engineering and management in a number of diverse industries including coal mining, commercial building construction and, at NSA Crane, research and development of new military explosives. “When you work for the Department of Defense, and you don’t want explosive environments, one thing they are very good at is documenting and following standard operating procedures. My approach was to start with the manual.”
The cooperative’s safety manual, he found, was out of date. “Even when we were doing things correctly, it was contrary to the manual in a lot of ways because the manual was so old,” he said.
Deaton formed a safety committee that included both linemen and office leadership. They examined safety procedures from top to bottom and rewrote the cooperative’s safety manual. More than producing just sheets of paper for a new manual, however, those committee meetings spurred a true soul searching. It was kind of a catharsis that took them back to Minton’s death. Deep, frank discussions began.
“Linemen very rarely talked about safety, but we had those tough conversations,” Deaton said. “We talked about the accident that killed Brent. How it could have been prevented. Those emotions had been buried for a while, three to four years by the time we started talking about it. And so, by talking about it, it keeps the safety mindset top-of-mind, all the time. That’s really how we transitioned.”
Deaton noted it took some personnel changes to turn the ship around. The longtime line supervisor retired. Another employee stepped into that role, but it wasn’t the right fit to effect the positive change in safety they needed. That employee moved to another department, and the cooperative’s staking engineer, Billy Chastain, was elevated to operations manager in 2018.
Linemen very rarely talked about safety, but we had those tough conversations. We talked about the accident…how it could have been prevented…by talking about it, it keeps the safety mindset top-of-mind, all the time.Matt Deaton, Orange County REMC
SENDING IN THE MARINE (AND REINFORCEMENTS)
Chastain had been at Orange County REMC since 2010. He had retired from a 20-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2009 and came home. He started working as a materials manager. Shortly thereafter, after going to school, he became the staking engineer.
Like Deaton, Chastain brought that military discipline for following procedures with him. Unlike his CEO, Chastain had been there under the previous leadership and saw firsthand where the fissures were. “Before I took this job, I was fortunate enough to see what I thought worked, what I didn’t think worked, and what I would do differently. And I took 20 years of the Marine Corps and the leadership that I’d been taught and applied it thoroughly here.”
Responsibility for the safety of the crew of 11 linemen was also extremely personal for Chastain. He knew Minton growing up in Paoli. “He was a few years younger than me, but we played a lot of football in my wife’s grandparents’ yard. Brent was one of the first people I saw here when I did my initial interview and walk around. I knew if he worked here, it would be a good place to work.”
Linemen are wired to get the job done. When people have their power out, or there’s a storm restoration, their only focus is to get the power back on. It takes a lot to throttle that back and say ‘Hey, what we don’t get done today, we’ll get done tomorrow.'”Billy Chastain, Orange County REMC
Chastain said he knew shortcuts were being taken in the field. But the culture at the REMC was such and he was in a position that had little input. Those shortcuts were coming from the older linemen; younger linemen, he noted, sure weren’t learning them in apprenticeship classes. “My take on safety in the electric utility industry is that if it’s a shortcut, it’s been taught to them by somebody else. Once you can eliminate that, then you can really start addressing the culture change. I had to take a little while, and I was lucky enough to watch the majority of these linemen for several years as an outsider, so I pretty much knew who I needed to address as far as making the changes here. Once you get the buy-in from those key personnel, and they know that what you’re trying to do is for their own safety, I think that’s when things started changing.”
To get the linemen to start toeing the line of safety, ironically, the former Marine had to get them to be less “gung-ho.” “Linemen are wired to get the job done,” Chastain explained. “When people have their power out, or there’s storm restoration, their only focus is to get the power back on.” But that’s when, to save a few minutes here and there, shortcuts start being taken, he said. “It takes a lot to throttle that back and say, ‘Hey, what we don’t get done today, we’ll get done tomorrow.’”
Another change was the creation of two lead lineman positions. This put trusted crew leaders overseeing the safety of all at each worksite each day. The two lead linemen were sent to a weeklong NRECA safety summit to enhance their knowledge and skills. Chastain said if the REMC was going to hold them accountable for the safety of the others, it was incumbent upon the cooperative to give them the added tools. “They spent five days talking about nothing other than safety,” he said.
Those two brought back rejuvenated mindsets and new perspectives, as well, they then passed onto the other linemen.
“Matt laid the foundation cornerstone, and Billy took it to a whole other level,” said Chuck Tiemann, a safety and risk management instructor for Indiana Electric Cooperatives. Tiemann investigated Minton’s accident and has worked closely with the REMC for years. “But it’s not just one person or two people,” he said. “It’s been a concerted team effort. Their linemen, whether they’re a journeyman or apprentice, are buying into it, too. They are not shy about wanting to get better … the spirit and the attitude is just unbelievable.
It’s not just one person or two people. It’s been a concerted team effort. Their linemen…are buying into it, too. They are not shy about wanting to get better…the spirit and the attitude is just unbelievable.Chuck Tiemann, Indiana Electric Cooperatives
“It’s a dangerous job,” Tiemann continued. He knows the dangers all too personally. Forty-one years ago as a young lineman with an Oklahoma electric cooperative, he lost an arm and a leg to an electrical contact that killed him — three different times. Three times he was brought back to life. He has spent the rest of his career teaching and preaching safety. The last 14 years of his career has been with IEC.
“Sometimes handling 7,200 volts is the least dangerous part of our job,” he said. “We’ve got the tools and equipment to handle that properly. A lot of times, pole loading or traffic control is more dangerous. But 7,200 hundred volts becomes extremely dangerous if we don’t follow the rules, don’t have proper equipment or don’t use that equipment 100% of the time.”
To that end, Tiemann said the Orange County line crew begins each day talking. “They start out with excellent communication before they ever leave the warehouse, and they have that job in their mind as they go out and start loading material and things like that,” he said. “They go over the entire day with everybody.”
OUT OF THE GATE AND TAILGATE
While most all cooperatives have that morning meeting, Orange County’s took on added structure and importance, too, in recent years. Chastain said a key to help facilitate the meetings was sharing new safety reports from IEC and the addition of the S.A.F.E. app that was developed by Federated Insurance.
This app allows workers to conduct job briefings on an iPhone or iPad. It gives them a form that can be filled in and emailed to as many recipients as needed. Chastain said the S.A.F.E. app has been huge in helping linemen track their work assignments and conditions and for keeping the office briefed. “I think that’s one of the best things that’s happened to this industry.”
In addition, when Chastain gets a notice from IEC, Federated or whomever about a near miss or an incident at another cooperative somewhere, that notice goes on the agenda in the next morning meeting. He will have one lineman read the report aloud, and then the entire crew discusses it. “We talk about that situation. Is it something that we’ve experienced here? Or, what would you do differently?”
Sometimes, they’ll say, “Holy crap, we’ve done that 100 times and didn’t think about that,” Chastain added. “That was a tough barrier to break down to get to where we were all comfortable communicating about what happens day-to-day. So, I have to say: The number one thing that has changed the safety culture here is that communication.”
That’s the number one thing — that communication between the outside operations — the linemen — and the inside operations. To me, it’s changed everything. We can communicate everything freely. If something bad happened today, I want to know about it. It’s not so we can punish anyone. It’s so we can look at it as a group and fix it. If we can’t talk about it, we can’t fix it.Billy Chastain, Orange County REMC
Along with a full detailed report of that day’s work assignments, as Tiemann noted, the morning meeting is also used to discuss conditions and other outside distractions they’ll be encountering so they can then fully focus on the tasks at hand in the field. “That’s the number one thing — that communication between the outside operations — the linemen — and inside operations,” Chastain said. “To me, it’s changed everything. We can communicate everything freely. If something bad happened today, I want to know about it. It’s not so we can punish anyone. It’s so we can look at it as a group and fix it. If we can’t talk about it, we can’t fix it.”
Deaton admits there was some initial pushback to the new emphasis on following the safety manual to the letter, but that’s only natural, he said. “Anytime you ask someone to change something that they’ve been doing the same way for 20 years, it’s not easy.”
Overcoming the pushback came through a fundamental, mutual understanding and respect through those long, tough conversations. “We had to get down to that before we could start building back up,” Deaton said.
Also, the buy-in wasn’t cheap. As part of the mutual understanding, the line crews held Deaton and Chastain accountable for promises they made. Action items for management meant to fully equip the trucks as necessary for the linemen to comply with the safety protocols. The service trucks themselves were also reexamined, making sure they were four-wheel drive and had heavy duty jibs and service arms. The cost could be an additional $15,000 over a normally rated service truck.
“Those are the types of things that proved to them that ‘hey, we’re serious,’” Deaton said. “If you need a heavy-duty jib to hold the conductors out of your way, which makes your workspace safer while you’re in the bucket, by God, we’re going to do it.”
Deaton said some of those things might be expensive. “But when it comes down to it, if you look at our experience model modification on our insurance from Federated and those other types of business-related expenses: If something happens, it’s an order of magnitude difference on what it’s really going to cost the company. That’s just the dollars, beyond there being a human being no longer on Earth to do the job and be with their families. So, they were very easy decisions.”
At some point, you have to make them make the choice in their own mind: ‘Why do you want these things? I want you to think about your daughter, your son, your wife, I want you to just think about those things.’ That’s uncomfortable for big, tough, strong prideful men. But if they do have those things in mind, they will never forget their gloves. They will never not ground both sides of the work area.Matt Deaton, Orange County REMC
Getting back to mutual respect, Deaton told the crews management could not force the changes or make them wear gloves or put on grounds every time. “At some point, you have to make them make the choice in their own mind: ‘Why do you want to do these things? I want you to think about your daughter, your son, your wife, I want you just think about those things.’ That’s uncomfortable for big, tough, strong, prideful, men. But if they do have those things in mind, they will never forget their gloves; they will never not ground both sides of the work area. And so again, that’s kind of how we started changing the culture.”
Besides the tangible results of lower insurance expenses, the intangible and incalculable results are a safer work environment.
And the emphasis on safety has earned the appreciation of those it protects most. “I’ve had our most senior linemen in my office a number times, saying, ‘You know what? I don’t know how I’ve worked in this industry for 40 years and not been hurt. But thank you for having us do that,’” Deaton said.
Chastain noted several older linemen retired after he arrived. “All have been amazing men, hard workers, who have given the majority of their life to making sure people’s electricity was on. And so when we talk about change, it’s nothing against any of them. It’s just that we figured out ways to be safer. Unfortunately, a lot of them have been hurt trying to figure out whether that safety manual says ‘shall’ or ‘should.’ And so, I don’t mind saying that the culture has changed here — because it feels good to know that we’re doing things safer.”
Deaton also noted the results are being noticed outside their office. “It wasn’t because we hold up a sign or say ‘See this really nice-looking safety manual?’ It has been noticed by third parties, by folks that don’t report to me. For someone like Jon Elkins (IEC vice president of safety, training and compliance) or Chuck Tiemann, or any other person who is able to look at our culture from outside the team and say, ‘You know what? I think they have a story to tell.’”
But, he is also quick to add that the story never really ends. “The ongoing part is there will never be a ‘result.’ Safety must always be worked.”
The ongoing part is there will never be a ‘result.’ Safety must always be worked.Matt Deaton, Orange County REMC