“Every year we have a cleanup day,” the email from a Minnesota co-op to its statewide association began. “Offices, trucks, files, whatever. During file cleanout, one of our employees found this letter. I have the old accident files for this accident; this letter, however, is not in there. I’ve never seen it before. The author of the letter puts his feeling into terms like no one else could unless they’ve sat in his shoes.”
Attached to the email, Lidia Dilley Jacobson recalls, was a stark and heart-rending four-paragraph note composed on a typewriter more than 40 years earlier.
“Heard through the vine you wanted a copy of the accident report of our fatality,” the co-op’s construction superintendent at the time wrote to someone, presumably a power-line program instructor or coordinator, at a Minnesota Area Vocational Technical Institute. “It was our first serious accident we ever had in this company. It was one of my men in the Construction Department and needless to say, it hurt us deeply.
“It was my first experience with a crisis like this, and I hope it will be my last. I went with Gary’s wife to the clinic and stayed with her til the end.
“All I know is, if somehow all linemen could get that helpless feeling sitting with a man’s wife waiting, we wouldn’t need near as many written safety rules.”
Jacobson is the director of safety & loss control at the Minnesota Rural Electric Association (MREA, statewide) in Maple Grove, and she knew just what to do when the email and its mournful attachment landed in her inbox. She shared it, widely, with the people she works with every day at 50 co-ops across her state and beyond.
When it comes to job-related incidents in the utility industry, Jacobson says, personal stories and a resulting determination to do things better next time can be at least as effective as official reports and investigators’ findings—even when the incident occurred four decades before.
“Although it was written many years ago,” Jacobson wrote in the statewide’s member newsletter, it “remains timeless. It’s one of those letters that when you get to the end, your heart hurts. Plain and simple, it hurts. If you do one thing today, share this story with someone. It seems it was written with a purpose bigger than the author might have imagined. It was meant to be shared. I believe that is what he would have wanted.”
It’s certainly what she’s wanted, ever since she joined MREA in 2013. One of her first projects was the “Safety Playbook,” a snappy electronic newsletter she sends out every couple of weeks to association members and co-ops in South Dakota, Wisconsin, Texas, and Missouri.
“Oftentimes, we hear stories out there, but that’s all we do is hear them,” Jacobson says. “We’re so focused on the story, but what are the outcomes of that incident at your co-op? We fail to hear that part of the story. The purpose of stories is prevention, not blame.”
Her “Safety Playbook” answers that need, she adds.
“I started the Playbook when I came on board with MREA because the linemen said they never knew what was happening around the state,” she says. “It is based on their input and what they are willing to share. I know the guys look forward to getting it, and many talk about it during the Monday morning meetings.”
The crews, it turns out, have plenty to offer, and Jacobson packs it all together in one- or two-page newsletters studded with quick, punchy accounts of foul-ups, strange occurrences, and unexpected things to watch out for, often illustrated with cellphone photos of the perils lineworkers see on the job.
Recent issues have included a wide range of hair-raising or head-shaking episodes that have gotten crews talking:
“Vehicle was DOT’d [checked by a federally certified inspector] the day before. While crew was responding to an outage, the back wheel, outside dual, passed the driver on the road. By the time he got pulled over to the side, the other wheel, inside, had come off the axle. We’re going to get torque wrenches for the crews and have them check the lugs periodically.”
“On the way to load up at the pole yard, we heard a ‘thud’ on the truck roof. We found the lock washer and nut that held the auger coupling to the gear box had come off. If we hadn’t found this, the auger could have slid off.”
“Came across this member cutting his own tree down. [An accompanying photo shows a partially extended aluminum ladder resting on a second-floor roof and reaching up into a high limb.] There is actually a step above the ladder, screwed into the tree so he could climb higher. The good news: It was nowhere near any overhead line.”
Cautionary photos of blown-out tires, frayed ropes, and badly wired electrical outlets share space with pictures of crew members’ hunting successes. A “Safety Pays!” box contains a regular reminder: “Save a life? You just might if you share your story or picture with the SLC [safety & loss control] crew today!”
Jacobson says the Playbook is meant to be a readable, engaging vehicle for learning from incidents when things go sideways.
Three serious mishaps occurred on Minnesota co-op lines last year, she says, “and people kept asking us, what can you tell us?
“We were being asked so many times, I flipped it around and asked, what are you willing to share? But if we just tell the story, then the emphasis is on the story and not on what we can do with it. It’s not just hearing the story; it’s taking action,” she says. “In today’s world, with all the texting and social media that goes on, people already know a little bit about the incident. We want to make sure it could also be a learning opportunity.”
Know someone RE Magazine could profile for our “Front Lines” column? We’re looking for co-op operations and member services staffers, from meter readers to lineworkers to engineers, who make things work at electric co-ops nationwide. Contact us at email@example.com, or you can reach writer John Vanvig directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-624-4595.