When working with electricity, safety is never an unnecessary or trivial concern, as Verendrye Electric Cooperative can attest to with its extensive safety policies and procedures for employees.
Verendrye Electric Cooperative serves a significant amount of Minot, but around the edge of Minot and by the bypass, said Tom Rafferty, Minot community relations and communications manager for the cooperative, and they also serve the mall and Walmart as well as seven counties.
"So around half of our members are in the outskirts of Minot and the other half are rural," he explained. "We have about 11,000 members."
Jill Hambek/MDN • Tom Rafferty, Minot community relations and communications manager for Verendrye Electric Cooperative, wears a pair of special rubber gloves that the linemen typically wear when working with power lines.
They're called members because Verendrye Electric is a non-profit organization and was founded in 1939 by a rural group who had no electric power, Rafferty continued. If Verendrye Electric makes a profit, then they will return the money as capital credit checks or save it to help the cooperative grow, he continued.
There are about 14,500 meters that Verendrye Electric serves and 4,800 miles of power lines, some underground, Rafferty said. Verendrye Electric has 62 employees and half of them are lineworkers, he added. The cooperative doesn't generate any power themselves, Rafferty noted, and buy from Basin Electric and then Central Power.
"We don't make any power," he added. "We just get it to your house or farm."
Safety in general is taken very seriously at Verendrye Electric Cooperative and they take more than one approach. They follow OSHA rules and industry standards, have their own safety procedures and training, enlist the help of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives for safety training, and voluntarily participate in the Rural Electric Safety Achievement Program. Several times a year Verendrye Electric has safety training for all employees, even office workers, Rafferty said, and every employee has to be certified in CPR and first aid every two years. Employees also learn how to use a fire extinguisher with a special simulator and all employees take defensive driving courses every two years, he added. What's more, Verendrye Electric conducts hearing tests every two years, along with conducting an anonymous safety survey of all of their employees that asks if they think the cooperative is doing enough to keep them safe and allows the employees to make anonymous recommendations.
Verendrye Electric has a safety committee, Rafferty noted, and review even small accidents to make sure any potential problem is corrected. The board of directors also receives periodic reports on safety to ensure the cooperative is doing a good job with safety. The cooperative also tests their equipment, including regular testing of rubber gloves, hot sticks and other safety gear.
There are also daily safety procedures conducted for the linemen. Rafferty said every day before the linemen start working, they have a tailgate session where they talk about safety concerns and hazards. The linemen are constantly learning and receiving training, he added. The linemen conduct poletop rescue drills to help them practice what they would do in the event a co-worker got stuck on a pole and became unconscious, Rafferty explained. They also attend hot line school that helps train them on how to work on power lines while the lines are energized.
If there is a small incident like a fender bender, Rafferty noted, the person involved has to fill out a safety report and the report then goes to the safety committee. The board is really supportive of safety and involved with the safety programs, he added.
"As long as it gets reported, it will be held in the light," Rafferty said. "We still have to work on ways to improve (with safety). It's a lot safer now than it was 70 years ago, but we're always scrutinizing ourselves even if we have a great record of safety."
"There is no room for error in electricity," Rafferty said "If you make contact with an electric line, you'll be killed or severely burned, so we take great precautions in safety."
Verendrye Electric also takes care in keeping the public safe around electricity. Rafferty said they have a safety page on their website that tells about safety with power lines and they publish articles about safety in the monthly magazine, North Dakota Living. Verendrye Electric also conducts safety demonstrations at schools and for other groups and hand out safety information to children who come into the office, he continued. They encourage their members and the general public to call Verendrye Electric if they think they see a potential safety hazard as well.
This past summer, Verendrye Electric received calls from people who had contact with power lines, and that amounted to over 200, Rafferty noted. Some things to remember when working around power lines include not to assume all power lines have the same clearance height, since height can vary; call 811 before you dig post holes or dig for other projects on the farm; avoid storing hay or other material near power lines because it can be a hazard when loading; always lower an auger or other boom before moving it; and be careful when working near trees that may block the view of power lines. It's also important to remember that if equipment gets hung up on a power line, the operator should not get off the machinery unless in immediate danger. If you must leave the equipment, jump as far away from the machinery as possible and never get back on machinery that touches a power line until the utility company disconnects the line.
"If there is a safety issue like getting a kite stuck in a power line, please call us. We'll be happy to help," Rafferty said "There's never a dumb question when it comes to safety."