“Denny, put your seatbelt on. Please,” Sean Vanslyke politely but firmly tells a visitor sitting in the back of his SUV. “I don’t want to have to call whoever I’d have to call.”
The possibility of an accident is left unspoken, but everyone in the vehicle understands what the CEO of SEMO Electric Cooperative means. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lineman at the top of a pole, a member services representative (MSR) in his co-op’s office, or a passenger failing to buckle up on a short drive to the Sikeston, Missouri, headquarters.
Sean Vanslyke is an evangelist for safety.
“I’m selfish about safety from the primary standpoint that folks come to work for a particular reason, and that is to provide for their family. But secondarily, I have no interest in going to the hospital. I have no interest in going to a funeral home,” Vanslyke says. “And least of all, I have no interest in knocking on somebody’s door and having a conversation with them.”
Watch | Sean Vanslyke on Safety
‘We’re All Responsible for Safety’
Todd Beaird is the co-op’s chief financial officer, so he’s not going up in a bucket to handle live wires. But the co-op’s safety manual is right on his desk, awaiting some updates. And when that’s done it will still be close by, on a shelf right behind him.
“Our safety here is different than out in the field, but we’re still responsible for it. That’s one of the things that Sean has brought to us,” Beaird says. “We’re all responsible for safety. And if we see something, regardless of if it is in my area or if it’s in the truck bay, that is something we should call out.”
He’s the first to tell you his perspective is different from that of an operations manager.
“Mine may be as simple as, there’s water on the floor that needs to be mopped up, versus not wearing a hardhat on the forklift,” Beaird explains. But, he notes, it’s an example of how everyone at SEMO is encouraged to take an ownership interest in the safety of themselves and everyone else.
That’s how Victoria Kemp spends her day.
Kemp could probably use another pair of eyes … or two, or three. As a dispatcher, safety factors into everything she does.
Kemp works in a room at headquarters with enough monitors to rival a sports bar. But you won’t find the Cardinals game on in there. She’s busy monitoring where crews are and what jobs they’re working on. Are they aware of tree trimmers in the area? Is a line de-energized? Is it safe to re-energize?
“They’re depending on me to know where other ‘troops’ are,” she says.
As the co-op’s equivalent of a traffic cop, she’s also watching the Sikeston and Bloomfield office lobbies as well as the front gate, making sure only those who should get in do so.
“We’re looking out after each other. We’re one family,” Kemp says. “Safety is the most important thing.”
‘In Case the Earth Moves’
You’ll never mistake Sikeston for Los Angeles, but they have this much in common: Both are earthquake country.
SEMO sits atop the New Madrid Fault, which the Missouri Department of Natural Resources deems “the most active seismic area in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.” Experts believe as many as five earthquakes of at least magnitude 7.0 occurred in the fault in one three-month period two centuries ago.
Two centuries ago seems like a long time. But if it happened once, it can happen again, and Peggy Evans does her best to make sure equipment in the SEMO warehouse won’t go flying should the ground start shaking.
“Our new shelving is bolted down to the concrete, so that stabilizes it somewhat,” says the woman in charge of the Sikeston warehouse.
And while a quake is a concern, Evans’s primary focus is on making sure the everyday things that could go wrong don’t.
“We try to make it safe for anyone who comes through,” Evans says. “The bigger pallets are shrink-wrapped, so that eliminates anything coming down, for the most part. And we don’t put anything up there if we don’t think it’s safe.”
Nothing sticks out of the shelves. The warehouse is kept clean. Little things mean a lot for safety.
“Every year it seems that we improve a little bit as far as what next step can we go to to make sure that we strive for that better quality of safety.”
Camp SEMO is a program the co-op runs for employees of other co-ops as well as affiliated organizations including NRECA and CFC. Over two days, guests get a hands-on view of SEMO operations—everything from accounting and engineering to going out with the linemen. And when you go out with the linemen, you’re equipped like a lineman.
Visitors receive a safety vest and a genuine, professional-grade co-op hardhat, each of which has these words printed on it: “My Life is on the Line!”
Ryan Condict has the exact same hardhat. He also has what he calls “the best job in the world.”
A native of nearby Bernie, Missouri, Condict, 34, worked up and down the East Coast as a contractor before coming to SEMO six years ago and rising to foreman.
“We all watch out for one another. We’re a close group,” he tells a Camp SEMO visitor as he drives his bucket truck out to where his crew will be changing a pole.
It doesn’t happen often, but if he or someone else sees someone acting unsafely, they don’t hesitate to speak up.
“No one takes offense. If I was working unsafe, I’d want someone to say something to me.”
At the job site, a Job Briefing sheet is passed around with details of the work to be done, the protective equipment required, and any special precautions. Everyone signs, including the campers and Vanslyke.
It’s hard to imagine anyone taking a safety shortcut 35 feet off the ground, with a pole weighing upwards of 1,200 pounds and a 300-pound transformer. Certainly not journeyman lineman Benjamin Campbell, who lowered his bucket on a sweltering day, took off the gloves that go up to his elbows, and turned them upside down to pour out the sweat.
“You get too hot, you take a break,” Campbell says. “There’s nothing out here worth getting hurt over.”
In his 44 years in the utility industry, Marty Vineyard, SEMO’s senior manager of operations, says, “This is one of the safest groups of linemen I’ve worked with in my entire career. These guys take it extremely serious. They’re very professional about it. Not to say that the others I’ve worked with haven’t been, but I would say that our group probably takes it to the next level.”
Vineyard attributes that to “the willingness of the managers and the board to put safety number one—and to stand behind it and mean it.”
“It gives me a great deal of comfort knowing I have the room to do what I need to do in the name of safety,” he says. “That makes you sleep well.”
Vineyard pauses and then adds, “I sleep well, but I’m always concerned and worried about the wellbeing of each and every employee at SEMO.”
The New Desk
Dannett Cooper never liked the old setup in the co-op lobby. When members entered, they hovered over a two-person desk and looked down at the member service representatives.
“That was not very safe, in our point of view, because you weren’t face-to-face,” says Cooper, SEMO’s supervisor of member services. “It’s kind of intimidating when you’re waiting on somebody, and they’re mad, and they’re kind of towering over you.”
But soon a new desk would debut in the Sikeston headquarters.
“It brings the MSR up to where, when she comes in contact with a member, she’s face-to-face,” Cooper says. “We just felt from a safety aspect, it’s better for them.”
While you need a keycard to access most of the building, the one public entrance only requires pulling open the door during business hours. There’s no being buzzed in.
“We’ve given a lot of thought to that. You know, in the cooperative world, we like to be hands-on. We don’t want to take that away from our membership,” Cooper says. “But on the other hand, we want everyone to feel safe. So we’ve kind of been torn about what we need to do. Do we glass it in? Do we leave it open?”
Still, the reality is that like any utility, SEMO gets members coming in who have been disconnected or are otherwise upset. So staff is ready.
“We have a security button underneath the desk. If the MSR ever feels threatened, she can push that button. It alerts several cellphones in the building.”
There are also cameras on the MSR desks at both Sikeston and the Bloomfield office 25 miles west. MSRs at each location have a clear view of a monitor showing what’s happening at the other office. Another camera records visitors, who see themselves on a monitor.
But the ultimate goal is to never let things escalate.
“If someone comes up here, and they start getting angry, we’ll try to pull them into an office and deescalate the conversation. And most of the time it works,” Cooper says. “Sometimes they just want you to listen.”
Alex Jackson’s smiling face is the first thing you see walking in to SEMO headquarters, and on the first day behind the new desk, she’s already pleased.
“I like being eye level with the members,” Jackson says.
She worked her way through college tending bar at a family-style chain restaurant, but she says, “I feel a lot safer here than I ever did there.
“I do feel very safe here with all the cameras,” Jackson says. “And we do have Mace back here.”
She’s never had to use it, nor has she had to press the security button. But SEMO also has a code word that MSRs can use if they feel threatened. When Jackson was first hired, she “didn’t really believe” it would work. So Vanslyke encouraged her to test it out by announcing it over the intercom.
“In less than five seconds, there were seven guys up here,” Jackson remembers.
A Fresh Perspective
It’s not uncommon to wear several hats working at a co-op, but Glen Cantrell’s title is a little unusual even by that standard: manager of safety, legislative and public affairs.
“Legislative and public relations is part of my background,” he says in the voice that gave him an earlier career on the radio.
But the safety part?
“It’s brought a different perspective on safety. How do we communicate safety? How do we get people engaged in safety?”
It’s no secret that people often tune out the same safety message heard over and over.
“But if we can maybe reframe it, do something a little different, make it a little fresher,” he says, “then maybe they’re more apt to listen and participate as you talk about that particular safety subject.”
Cantrell makes monthly safety posters, which are displayed in both co-op buildings. One features a cellphone in a red circle with a slash through it and this advice: “Put It Down. Heaven Can Wait.” Another has a caricature of a thirsty man, some of the warning signs of dehydration, and ways to prevent it. Other topics have included how lack of sleep can increase your risk of having an accident.
“We try to look beyond the electrical part and say, ‘There are other things you need to look out for too,’” Cantrell says.
Member safety is also paramount at SEMO, which has several web pages on safety, all with links from the homepage.
A few years ago, a man in a nearby service area decided to climb a pole to show his children that he could. He died after coming into contact with a live wire. Although it wasn’t on SEMO lines, the co-op was quickly on social media warning people of the danger.
It also offers timely, non-electric safety tips, such as dock safety in the summer.
“That’s beyond the meter, which is not our responsibility,” Cantrell says. “But the safety of our members is our responsibility.”
Safety Issue? Let’s Fix It!
As sure as Jimmy Kimmel begins his show with a monologue, Sean Vanslyke starts his staff meetings with safety. June 19 was no exception.
“You all know how I feel about safety, and I think you know why: Because I’m selfish about going to funeral homes, and I’m selfish about calling your wives and your husbands. I need you on the field, not on the sidelines,” Vanslyke tells the folks known as Team SEMO.
Twice a week, the CEO makes a point of meeting with line crews in Sikeston and Bloomfield.
“The first thing I ask is, ‘Are there any safety issues?’” he says. “If it’s a safety issue, let’s fix it. We are so nimble as cooperatives that we can just fix things as we go. We don’t have to wait for monthly meetings, quarterly meetings.”
Vanslyke is rarely at his desk. “I like to manage by walking around,” he says, and even politely declines a visiting photographer’s request for office pictures, because it’s not him. You’re more likely to find him at an outage getting video of repair work to share with members on Facebook or bringing pizza and Gatorade to a crew.
He became CEO of SEMO in 2012 after 13 years at the investor-owned utility Ameren Illinois, and he’s made safety his hallmark, pulling no punches.
“Everyone has the responsibility and the accountability to talk about safety,” he says. “As a manager, as a supervisor, as a co-worker, you’ve got to have empathy for your co-workers. You’ve got to care about them as human beings.”
He’s confident that his staff is doing the right things. That said, he’s not shy about speaking up and doesn’t want anyone on Team SEMO to hesitate.
“One of the hardest things for any supervisor is to go up and look somebody in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I noticed you’re not wearing your hardhat or your safety glasses. I would appreciate if you would do that,’” Vanslyke says. “You’ve got to be willing to do that, because do you want to go home and tell their wife, ‘I saw him without a hardhat, but I didn’t say anything?’”
For some, it’s hard to be “that guy,” but Vanslyke sees no choice.
“If you don’t work on safety 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, you’re fooling yourself.”