By Billy Gibson, Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives

It’s not every day that an auditorium full of general managers gets taken to task.

But Kenny Marvin had a strong message to deliver to top executives at the recent annual meeting of the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives in Baton Rouge.

Marvin, a field rep for Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange, spoke directly to the managers during his spirited presentation on the importance of safety: “Managers, you need to listen to what I’m telling you – if you’re not personally attending your organization’s safety meetings, you should be. That’s your job. It’s that important.”

For Joe Ticheli, general manager of Houma-based South Louisiana Electric Cooperative Association (SLECA) Marvin was singing to the choir.

Ticheli, who was hired as safety director at SLECA in 2000 and became GM in 2011, makes it a priority to attend all safety meetings, including those gatherings of the co-op’s two employee safety committees.

The reason is simple: “My presence at those meetings is paramount in sending the clear and unambiguous message to our employees that safety is critical,” Ticheli said.

The proof is in the figurative pudding.

As of the end of July, SLECA hasn’t recorded a lost-time accident since December of 1996. For those who are counting, that’s 3,589,304 million work hours.

This is not an insignificant sum under any circumstances, but it is especially impressive considering that the track record includes literally dozens of tropical storms and hurricanes that have swept through the Louisiana coast over the past two decades, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and others.

And the tally includes emergency line work performed both at home and away, such as when SLECA sent a crew to assist fellow cooperatives in Florida after Hurricane Irma last year and a fellow Louisiana co-op on the southwest side of the state after Hurricane Harvey.

What’s more, SLECA’s outstanding safety record also includes the average 700,000 miles the co-op’s linemen drive each year.

According to Operations Superintendent Matt Peters, a successful operations program like SLECA’s doesn’t happen by accident, so to speak. It takes everyone involved in the organization to play a substantial role in making sure effective policies are in place and every guideline is followed from the warehouse to the field.

“We don’t take shortcuts. If it takes an extra 15 or 20 minutes to do the job right, that’s what we do,” Peters said. “We stress ground-to-ground, lock-to-lock on every job, every day. I know it’s hard for our linemen sometimes, but it’s important to achieve the highest goal we have, and that is to go back home at the end of every day to the people who love us.”

Peters also noted SLECA’s involvement in the Louisiana Lineman Training Program administered at the statewide office in Baton Rouge.

During the four-year program, linemen learn the latest procedures and skills necessary to carry out their work assignments safely, but they also collaborate and interact with other cooperative linemen and superintendents from throughout the state.

Mike Bergeaux, director of safety and loss control at the statewide association, commended SLECA on the cooperative’s success.

“When we talk about the amazing work SLECA has done, sometimes people can hardly believe it. But it’s really a testimony as to how committed everybody in the organization is to doing things the right way each and every day, from the inside employees to the linemen who are out working on the poles and lines. My hat’s off to them,” Bergeaux said.

He noted that SLECA is a multiple past recipient of the annual Statewide Safety Trophy, including 2017. The cooperative was also the first in the state to participate in the national safety accreditation program.

Ticheli acknowledged that it can be difficult to sustain success over a long period of time when it comes to preventing lost-time accidents. Negative influences such as overconfidence, inattentiveness and complacency can sometimes set in.

But SLECA has also had to contend with another unexpected challenge: a depressed local economy.

Marc Caldwell is branch manager of SLECA’s Amelia office, an outpost that was created to serve an area that was once teeming with oil and gas businesses. But recent years have seen a severe downturn in economic activity in the Amelia and Morgan city region.

And along with that comes a strong temptation to cut corners.

Caldwell said that hasn’t been the case with SLECA’s board and management.

“Safety is often one of the first things many managers look at when they need to shore up the budget, especially in tough economic times,” Caldwell said. “But we’ve been very fortunate that our board hasn’t done that. They back us 100 percent and give us everything we need to do our work. They’re amazing with the amount of unwavering support they give us.”

SLECA board president, Alexander Doyle, confirmed that board members are in complete agreement that safety should never be shortchanged.

“It doesn’t ever really come up in our discussions and deliberations,” Doyle said. “We’re all on the same page. There’s just too much at stake. Nothing is more important than our employees being able to return to their families at the end of their workday. They do an incredible job and we want to do whatever we can to keep them free from harm.”

Another part of the budget that doesn’t get cut, according to Ticheli, is rights-of-way. Maintaining the proper ROW clearances is necessary to protect not only the line crews but members and the general public as well.

“When it comes to safety, our obligation goes beyond just our employees. We have to make sure we have a vigorous right-of-way program and do everything we can to reduce the risk of our members being harmed as well,” Ticheli said.

Peters noted that another aspect of safe operations is working with reliable and competent partners such as Louisiana 811. Part of SLECA’s service territory is within a 45-minute drive of New Orleans, which means a lot of subdivision construction. And that means lots of underground work. The co-op has 117 miles of primary underground service and 245 miles of secondary service.

He estimated that the cooperative completes an average of 50-60 “Dottie tickets” each day.

“Anyone who has done underground electric work knows how potentially dangerous it can be,” he said. “Electricity wants to go to the ground and that’s right where you’re working. You’re just so close in proximity to it and you can’t physically see the entire system. Your mapping has to be precise and up-to-date. Louisiana 811 has always been a great partner in helping us get our work done safely and efficiently.”

And for members of the public, he added, “There’s no reason any of our members shouldn’t call 811 when they have a project that requires digging. It’s simple, it’s free and it’s the law.”