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A Walk Down Memory Lane - Is Nostalgia What It Used To Be?

Posted 7/1/2016

R. Bruce Wright, CPCU

Not long ago I was visiting a rural power distribution utility in our program and I had the opportunity to meet the new, young GM for the first time. He told me about his first full year in the position, about coming in from the outside the company, outside the industry, and about his experiences in the process. As our conversation progressed through the familiar elements of their safety program I was struck by how much has changed since I first started working with this group of utilities back in the Dark Ages, or more specifically, in the late 1970s. 

When I first started working with members of this program, as a newly appointed claims manager for a large insurance carrier, I saw many, many claims from around the country, from nearly every state in fact, which provided me with my initial understanding of the hazards of power distribution in rural America. In the following years I was often able to meet GMs and other managers of these utilities, many of them members of the second or third generation of leaders at their companies, men — they were all men in those days, something else that has changed — who had come up through the line staff and worked their way to the top. All too often, when shaking hands with them I noticed that they were missing a finger, a thumb, or more. Occasionally, a new acquaintance would reach for my hand with his left hand, for reasons that became readily apparent. These were men who grew up with rural utilities that put providing electricity first; worker safety not so much. 

Several of you may have heard my story of a WC file I reviewed back around 1980 when the WC manager was on vacation and I (as the Package Policy Manager) had to cover his in-tray. To make a longish story short, I read an interview with a triple amputee, describing how he broke his own “safety” rule when he reached out from the pole he had climbed and bare-handed a line that turned out to be “hot,” costing him an arm and both legs. He described that “safety” rule to the interviewer, the rule he failed to use that day, by saying that throughout his career he had always used a special procedure if he wasn’t 100% sure a line was de-energized; instead of grabbing it with a bare hand he would instead just slap it, so if he was wrong he’d just lose some fingers. He was a veteran lineman, a journeyman who thought of slapping a possibly energized line as a “safety” rule! I suggest that we have come a long way since that day, over 3½ decades ago. 

As worker safety has advanced, public liability safety has improved along with it, improved in many areas as a result both of efforts to educate the public and to engineer around hazards. Find an old photo of a grain bin and count the wires around it just waiting for an auger. Or recall the days when a pole was deemed solid until it fell. Other safety advances have come as the result of changing technology and progress. If you are over 55 (if not, find someone and ask) you will remember the CB radio craze of the 1970s, and all the antenna related line contacts, now ancient history in today’s smart phone era. Or think about the generation of farm kids who all knew someone from their circle of friends who had been involved in a line contact when they picked up a length of irrigation pipe from the pile at the edge of the field, attempting to shake out the rabbit or other critter, while standing under the power lines. Center pivot irrigation has almost completely supplanted those old style “put together/take apart” pipes. And cable TV and satellite dishes have eliminated the soaring home antenna towers that used to dot rural America, which served as sources of line contact as their owners hunted to find the fuzzy broadcast stations from the nearest big city, many miles away.

As my meeting continued, the young GM began to talk about how important it was to reinforce a safety culture at the power company, how valuable it was to follow a policy of openness and transparency, and to share information with the entire staff so everyone could understand what was behind every rule and policy. This too was something undreamt of in the old days, when management guarded information jealously, believed the staff should work because they were paid, and they were not paid to ask questions. Yes, those ideas were really widespread at one time, and I hope that they are gone for good, at least in our group. 

You may also wish to review some related ideas in the article on company culture from earlier this year, available by clicking here