Awareness, teamwork keys to success
Always a time for celebration, the Fourth of July week took on special significance for workers at Valley Electric Association in 2019, marking the passage of one year since anyone at the Co-op was injured on the job.
Co-op wide, more than 300,000 hours were worked with no injuries. Many of those hours were logged in the field in intense heat, numbing cold or piercing wind. More than 800,000 miles were driven in company vehicles, most of them on unpaved areas of the desert. Dozens of power poles were replaced. Miles of power lines and high-speed fiber were hung on poles. Dozens of outages were worked. Thousands of consumers were connected to broadband service. Hundreds of pallets of supplies had been unloaded or loaded.
Being aware and protecting co-workers are themes that run through every department.
“There is so much potential for injury in our industry, we are really proud of our safety record,” says Interim CEO Dick Peck. “It takes training, it takes preparation and it takes focus to accomplish a fete like this. It also helps to have a little luck.”
VEA’s safety record has been exemplary for years, says Joe Fieldsted, Manager of Safety, Health, Environmental & Efficiency. VEA has had long periods without injuries before now, but it has been a decade since VEA workers went longer than a year.
“About half of our workers are high-risk occupations – linemen, installers, groundskeepers, warehouse workers,” says Fieldsted. “So safety is something that must be top of mind all the time. We want our workers going home to their families each day in the same condition that they arrived.”
Daily job briefings help with focus and awareness. Before each shift, line crews and broadband installers review each job, the risks workers might encounter and how to mitigate them.
Longtime lineman Tony Cipollini has seen just about everything in his three decades at VEA. He says it revolves around the culture. A safe workplace requires awareness – and not just awareness of one’s own surroundings but also of co-workers and their surroundings. “I’ve been here 30 years, and watching out for others has always been a huge part of our safety culture,” says Tony. “Over time, you learn to be aware of everything and everyone.”
That includes how the elements can affect concentration.
On blazing summer days in the Nevada desert, line workers often don quarter-inch thick heavy rubber gloves, long-sleeve shirts in addition to their ever-present hard hats and safety glasses. Working in teams, linemen keep close watch on each other. “After 30-45 minutes in a bucket that is being pushed around by wind on a hot day, you need to take a break and be sure to stay hydrated,” says Tony. “We’re always looking out for others, but particularly in tough conditions.”
VEA warehousemen Alex Williams and Sean Couture help keep the line workers and broadband installers well equipped to do their jobs, but transporting top-heavy transformers and cable presents risks. Whether loading or unloading supplies, driving a forklift, “we just have to take our time and watch out for others,” says Alex.
For most of its 50-year-plus business, VEA was strictly an electric co-op, serving more than 40,000 consumers across its 6,800-square-mile footprint. Things changed in 2016 when the association also began offering high-speed internet. The complexity of that business added to the daily safety challenges. Broadband installations often require multiple trips up and down ladders, walking on slick tile rooves or crawling in cramped, sweltering attics. The approach stays the same, however.
“Every morning, we review the jobs for the day and what we might face,” says Matt King, Manager of Broadband Installation and Repair. “We discuss safety issues that are variable – like wind, rain, heat and how to handle them all. We also review the work completed the day before with an emphasis on any unusual incidents and safety concerns. It’s important to keep the dialogue going all the time.”
Nearly 2,000 customers received new broadband installations since June 2018, and each presents safety challenges.
“Weather is a key,” says Alan Murillo, Broadband Installer. “Roof tiles can be slick, and typically, we are up on a roof four to six times per day. Wind is another key factor. A strong wind can easily move an 80-pound ladder. And, in the summer, you can only stay in a hot attic for 15 minutes before taking time to recover.”
Fleet Supervisor Jason Simpson is in charge of keeping VEA’ fleet of more than 200 trucks, vans, backhoes, forklifts, cranes, generators and trailers in tip-top shape so they can serve the needs of members efficiently and safely. A line crew depends on well-maintained equipment to repair damaged lines or install new services.
“There is a lot that goes into keeping our fleet maintained,” says Jason. Each week, routine maintenance is performed on approximately 20 pieces of equipment. “Gravity presents the most risk,” says Jason. “Most of injuries come from technicians being struck by things that fall.”
For the last 12 months – and counting – being aware and watching out for others has kept everyone safe.