Chuck Tiemann recognizes more than most how one bad day at work can change a life. As if it were a chapter and verse, he cites his by the day and time: Thursday, May 1, 1980 — May Day, appropriately — 1:58 p.m. … Central Time.
That’s when, not three years into his career as a lineman for a rural electric cooperative, Chuck learned the hardest way possible the lessons of electrical safety.
Atop a pole along a desolate stretch of Oklahoma open range, Chuck grabbed an energized power line he believed was dead. He paid dearly, literally an arm and a leg, and almost his life.
Over the next 41 years, Chuck, now 66, gave his life sharing those lessons so others wouldn’t have to learn them as he did. Fortunately for Indiana, the last 15 of those years has been as a safety and risk management instructor at Indiana Electric Cooperatives.
Teaching, preaching, praying, cajoling, counseling, consoling, lecturing, badgering, bending ears, sometimes twisting arms … sometimes twisting his own arm to unsnap and feign throwing his prosthetic hand, Chuck did what it took to get everyone’s attention. From worksite tailgate meetings to pole tops, he’s been a mentor and a “mother hen,” an ally and an agitator, pressing linemen to work more safely. And from CEO offices to cooperative boardrooms, he’s been an unrelenting advocate pressing managers and directors to approve and provide every necessary tool and procedure to make a safer working environment for the lineworkers he loves.
“My only focus is the linemen,” Chuck says, reflecting on his career he will wrap up officially in late 2021 with retirement. “That’s what our job is. That’s who we are. The linemen are the backbone of this country. If the power is not on, we’re a third world country. And these men have greatness. I believe with all my heart they have bought into the safety chair. And they know our messages aren’t just for them; it’s about their families and getting them home at the end of the day.”
Though Chuck is stepping away from the career he lived to die for — and died three times to live for — he plans to continue being the evangelist he became for electrical safety. His legacy as the “patron saint” of electrical linemen, and champion for electrical burn victims and amputees everywhere, will live on through his various educational works, counseling, and talks across the nation and in his words. He plans to continue motivational speaking, as well, and serving as a witness to a Savior who stepped in and saved him.
“I don’t know why my life was spared,” he says with a break in his voice and a tear welling in his eyes, “but God spared my life, and I’m forevermore grateful for that. I take not one day for granted … not one breath of life do I take for granted … because life is precious, and it could be gone that quick. And I understand that.”
Chuck’s bad day at work
On May 1, 1980, Chuck was part of a Kay Electric Cooperative line crew working routine construction in the open range country of northern Oklahoma near the state line with Kansas. Toward midafternoon, Chuck started climbing up a pole. The lines weren’t going to be hot, so he left the protection of rubber sleeves and rubber gloves below. As he neared the top, word was conveyed the lines had been neutralized. He could proceed.
Protected by only his leather glove, his left hand reached up for the line. But it was not dead.
In less than a heartbeat, 7,200 volts bolted down his left arm, though his torso, down his right leg and blew out his big toe heading for the neutral nearest to where he had dug his gaff into the pole. He was saved only by his fingertips. The two seized on the line burned off almost instantly, releasing his grip. His heart stopped. His body bent over, head touching his heels, and hung lifeless on the cross-armed pole. His co-workers raced up to revive and rescue him. They called for an ambulance and rushed him out to where the rugged range met a crossroad.
“It was not a good day at work at all,” Chuck would say many times later.
He spent the next 10 weeks in a Tulsa burn unit. He underwent the amputations of his left hand at the wrist and right foot and lower leg to the knee, as well as five other major surgeries. He was eventually fitted with a prosthetic left hand and right leg.
He credits his strong-willed wife, Terri, his high-school sweetheart who was just 24 years old herself at the time, for pushing him to regain his independence.
“Terri has been my backbone,” he says. “She has kicked me when I needed kicked; she has loved me when I needed loved.”
The tough love of getting the strong-willed Chuck back on his feet — one now made of wood — started quickly. “The day I came home with my first wooden leg, I asked Terri if she’d bring me a glass of water.”
She came flying out of the kitchen, he recalls, and said, “No, I won’t!”
Then she turned back to him and scolded, “Let me tell you something right now, young man. I did not marry a handicapped person. And you’ll not be handicapped. I’ll do anything for you that you are not capable of doing, but anything you can do, you will do on your own. You understand me?”
“I said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’” Chuck recalls, taken back. “And I got up, and I got that stupid glass of water.”
Already a couple with strong Christian convictions, Chuck and Terri grew even closer to Christ and to each other after the accident. In 1984, Chuck left Kay Electric to finish the college degree the cooperative gave him the opportunity to start after his accident. He earned two degrees, did some coaching and banking. But after his recovery, he continually counseled other electrical burn victims: linemen from all over the country and children who’d been burned climbing trees. Terri would counsel spouses.
Then, together, Chuck and Terri turned the challenges they faced into opportunities to help others. “I got tired of counseling with people that had been burned; I decided one day it was time to make it stop,” he says.
In 1996, he rejoined the electric cooperative family — first with Federated Rural Electric Insurance, then with the Alabama statewide association, both jobs based out of Alabama.
A new home in Indiana
In 2006, Chuck made his way north, accepting an offer to work for Indiana Electric Cooperatives. And while he’s made Indiana his work home for the past 15 years, the feisty Okie and devout Oklahoma State Cowboys fan, however, maintained his home and farm in Alabama, and small family farm in Oklahoma. He drove home to Terri and their three children, now adults, on weekends.
But even before coming to Indiana to work, Chuck earned the reputation as a stickler for following safety protocols. So much so that during the two weeks he worked alongside Indiana crews that traveled to Alabama to assist cooperatives there after hurricane destruction the crews endearingly dubbed Chuck “Mother Hen” for the way he always carefully made sure all the men were accounted for before closing in a repaired line.
The years in Indiana, he says, have been among the best of his career.
He is quick to credit the team now in place at IEC.
“We do nothing by ourselves,” Chuck says. “It’s all done by a team. Our IEC team here plays second fiddle to no one in the country with the greatness we have throughout the entire organization. And it makes no difference whatever our needs, we can reach out to the communications department or government relations or training and development. They have always been there for JTS (job training and safety) staff. I think that’s pretty awesome.
“Then I do want to talk about our JTS staff — Joe Banfield, Adam Lock, Greg Pemberton, and Jon Elkins,” he continues. “Jon is no doubt one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever worked for in my entire life. He has vision, wisdom, courage, and that’s one of the prayers that I pray for him. That’s what we need to continue to succeed and progress. The unity that we have now at IEC, the camaraderie, and the care that we have for the co-ops’ needs — it’s just been that teamwork.”
‘Chuckisms’ and the card of the man
Over the many years, beginning with reflecting on his own accident and then others or near misses he investigated or came across, Chuck began breaking down the fundamental causes of lineworker accidents. Most “accidents” are a collision of multiple failures. He then boiled the take away safety messages down into easy-to-remember statements.
Chuck says he just tossed one out once during a meeting with linemen as they were running through various topics, and the linemen responded well to it. They shared stories about injuries they had or had seen. “That’s a good one right there,” they’d say.
So, Chuck began incorporating his nuggets of wisdom as zingers at the end of safety meetings as he traveled around Indiana. They began to call these nuggets “Chuckisms,” and he says they would fuss at him if he didn’t leave them with at least one.
Chuck narrowed them down to four:
- Never let another person hurt you. Make certain everyone is in place and understands the job at hand; always begin with a good job briefing.
“Part of that was from me,” Chuck says, referring to his own accident. “And part of that message is: Never let yourself hurt yourself.”
- Know that you know that you know. Doing this job is like one’s salvation: if you need to ask one more time, then do so.
Chuck says this one came about from a conversation with a past safety coordinator at the Georgia electric cooperative association. They were talking about their religious faith, and he suggested Chuck emphasize “knowing” more in his talks with crews.
Even in a brief conversation with Chuck, a person realizes he is not a man who separates his professional life from his faith. He carries the cross for Christ whether he’s witnessing for a patient in a hospital or watching linemen raise crosses — cross-armed poles topped with electrical wire. With this axiom, Chuck says just as a believer should always know where he stands in his journey to salvation and never have a doubt where he’ll be spending eternity, a lineman should always know where he stands on the job with the task at hand. If he’s uncertain about any aspect, he needs to find the answer and know the answer before it’s too late.
- Gloves, sleeves, test, grounds. Cover up 100% of the time.
Chuck says this is another that came about after his own and so many other accidents. “Had I put grounds on at my pole, you would not know me,” he says to linemen, because he just would have lived out his life as just another lineman in Oklahoma.
- Rubber gloves correct lots of errors. My fault, your fault, everybody’s fault: Rubber gloves correct human errors.
This last one, Chuck says, is an extension of number three. Like all of them, it came about from thousands of meetings and conversations and several key ones over the years. The flesh and bone behind this one came about not long after Chuck started working in Indiana.
Chuck says he received a call from a young lineman on a Saturday afternoon while he was playing golf with his wife at home in Alabama. The lineman was working a weekend repair and was worried. His foreman was putting him in an uncomfortable job situation, and he didn’t know what to do.
The foreman, an old-school guy who has long since retired and is now deceased, wanted the lineman and the crew to work a line that didn’t have the proper grounds according to what they’d been learning.
Chuck told him: “You listen to me, young man, he cannot fire you for following the safety rule. He may cuss you, chastise you, berate you and put you down and make fun of you. But you get your open, you get your grounds on, and you get your gloves on. And you go home tonight. Do you understand me, son?
“If they give you any trouble,” Chuck told him, “you call back. If I’ve got to fight for you, I will fight for you.”
A couple of weeks later he was at another cooperative while making his usual safety training rounds and was invited by the operations manager to visit a worksite. “And there’s a young man up in the bucket working without his sleeves, no cover up. And we just had a safety meeting that morning about that stuff.”
The young lineman asked, “Can I come down to talk to you?”
Chuck told him he wished he would. The lineman came down, and with Chuck, the operations manager and the job foreman gathered, the young lineman said, “You know, I’ve got a wife. I’ve got babies. I don’t like the way we do this.”
Chuck repeated what he told the other lineman who called him that Saturday while golfing. “He cannot fire you for following safety rules. He can tell you about how they did it in the old days, but, son, it’s still your arms, your legs, and your life.”
Chuck says the operations manager backed him “110,000%.” “That’s where it starts. Leaders like that.”
“That’s what our jobs are about: changing and creating a safety culture. That’s who we are, but they have to buy into that.”
With word that Chuck was retiring, a retiring operations manager at another of Indiana’s REMCs suggested he put down his Chuckisms into writing and hand them out. That suggestion led to the creation of the highly popular Chuckism cards and posters. Chuck passed them out as he traveled the state in his final year with IEC. Co-ops across the country have heard about them and have begun requesting them, too.
The cards are adorned with a caricature of Chuck about to throw his prosthetic hand, unscrewed from a giant bolt in his forearm, to emphasize safety to non-listeners.
When Chuck first posted the arrival of the Chuckism cards on Facebook, he says wives of linemen reached out to get a set so they could put them on bulletin boards at home for their husbands to see as they walked out the door. “That was pretty cool. I gotta say, I was not a fan of that caricature of me, but that darn thing has gone nationwide. Those things have gone over like crazy, and that’s good.”
A legacy of safety
Chuck says he had forgotten about the confrontation with the old-school line foreman and the young lineman until it was mentioned at a recent retirement celebration. It obviously was an important moment in the lives of that lineman, who is now a supervisor, and his operations manager, who is now that cooperative’s CEO. Both mentioned it to Chuck at the farewell party hosted by the cooperative.
“That’s what we’ve got to be sometimes,” Chuck emphasizes. “We’ve got to be willing to take a stand. We’ve got to be willing to listen to and be honest with them. And we’ve got to be willing to say ‘you’re wrong.’ And we’ve got to be willing to say ‘you’re right, and we were wrong.’ We’ve got to have that trust and that relationship with them, or we will never get to zero contacts. One of the things I’ve tried to really push with the new team is to embrace controversy.
“It’s difficult. I don’t like it; nobody likes it. But usually, if there’s controversy, there’s an underlying message there that probably needs to be addressed. We may not fix that problem that day, that week, that month, or even that year. But sometimes what we’re called to do is plant the seed and cultivate and continue to water, and then someday we’ll reap the benefit from it. We’ve embraced it rather than run from it or let politics get in the way.
“And sometimes what we’ve got to do to as safety coordinators is to be willing to eat dinner alone when we’re out at the cooperatives. But it’s that personal to me.”
Fortunately, Chuck has been invited to more dinners than forced to eat alone. “I’ve been proud these guys want to go to dinner with me, or play golf, or have me go to their stock show or ballgames or have me over at their homes. It’s been awesome to have that relationship with these men. I’ll pull into town the night before a safety meeting, and they know I’m there, and they’ll call that evening and go, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go on a trouble call. You want go with us?’ Or the operations manager will call me to go out. That’s pretty cool that we’ve got that bond, that relationship with those guys.
“And they genuinely want to know what they can do to do their jobs better and safer. That comes from their hearts. And they rely on us for the resources and the expertise. I’ve talked to other statewides, and no one else can tell the stories like that. I think, ‘My! What a reputation we have in Indiana!’” But Chuck knows there’s still a lot of work to do to reach the goal of zero contacts, and safety is always a journey, never a destination.
Chuck points to the fact that there are around 232 fatalities or injuries costing more than $100,000 each year from electrical contacts. But that 232 is not a number, it’s names. “Those are people and families that are affected by that. And that’s what I’ve tried to instill in our linemen and in our operations and in our team.
“That 232 could effectively grow to 20,000 or 30,000 people that’s impacted. Because wives, children, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, cousins are affected by it. That co-op family’s affected by it. The linemen at the next co-op who went to school with them are affected by it. That number is huge. It’s not 232. That’s a starting point.”
While overall numbers are much better than the 200 actually killed each year when Chuck was burned in 1980, Chuck says, as an instructor, it’s hard for him to talk about a “safety legacy.”
“My goal since 1996, since I’ve been doing safety training, is to be at zero. And every time an incident happens, we, as a team, take it hard. What did we miss? Why didn’t we get that point across? What do we have to do to get that point across? Why did that lineman fail at that task that day? Was there something more we should do? As instructors, we take this personally. If we don’t, we need to sweep floors at Walmart and get out of this business.”
Over the last 41 years, Chuck says he’s counseled over 150 linemen who have lost appendages. The last was just this autumn in Alabama. “It’s been humbling, yet rewarding, because Terri and I have been blessed to help. We can see many of those guys go back to work and live a near normal lifestyle. It hasn’t been me; it’s been us. Terri’s counseled with the wife. She can understand that side of the chair.”
A good day today
In his travels spreading the safety gospel during his career, Chuck has visited 444 of the nation’s electric cooperatives. But as he notes in Chuckism No. 3, if not for that one bad day at work, he probably wouldn’t have been noticed outside of Oklahoma.
“I can’t say how many there are, or who they are, but I can say this,” testifies Jon Elkins, “Linemen are going home to their wives and children every night, and they wouldn’t be here today if not for Chuck’s love of these men and his unwavering dedication to their safety. Whether they even know it or know him, there are men in Indiana, and across the United States, who owe their lives or at least their limbs to Chuck Tiemann. We should all be grateful God gave him back to us to become that ‘Mother Hen’ of safety he became.”
“He taught us how to do things better; he taught us how to do things safer,” says Eric Laymon, line superintendent at Heartland REMC’s Wabash division.
Besides making his mark on the electric cooperative industry, Chuck has championed the rights of amputees, meeting high-ranking government officials, appearing on “Good Morning, America,” appearing in over 500 newspaper and magazine articles, writing a chapter of a book. And recovering from his accident, he witnessed three different hospital roommates see Christ through a piece of artwork, the “Man on the Wall” they called him, that one of Terri’s young students made during a summer Bible school taped up by his hospital bed.
“I just never would have dreamed of doing anything that would have given me the opportunities to accomplish any missions like these being just a lineman,” he says. “In those fights, God has called me. That’s His perfect plan.” And Chuck says these accomplishments have made that one bad May Day worth it.
But Chuck readily admits what a difference a day makes.
“If on April 30, 1980, the Lord had said to me, ‘Oh, tomorrow’s gonna be a really bad day that’s gonna affect the rest of your life,’” he says, “I would have called in sick.”
Now looking forward to retirement, Chuck says, “Life has been good.”
And, he repeats an unpublished but the most universal Chuckism of them all. The biggest life lesson he leaves with everyone is: “Life IS good — today.”