FORT WORTH, Texas—It was a horrible day.

An accident in a North Arkansas Electric Cooperative substation killed three men. A fourth was severely injured and would spend a long time hospitalized before recovering.

Mel Coleman had to make "that gut-wrenching phone call."

"As a matter of fact," he adds, "four phone calls in one day."

That day in August 2004 still haunts Coleman, CEO of North Arkansas Electric in Salem and president of NRECA. He doesn't want anyone to ever have to call a colleague's loved ones to deliver that kind of news.

"I pray every day I'll never have to do it again, and that nobody in this room ever has to make that call," Coleman told the NRECA Safety Leadership Summit, Nov. 17.

"There is nothing more important than safety," Coleman stressed as he opened the summit at the Renaissance Worthington.

"As I've said so many times to my employees, nothing is more important than going home at 5 o'clock and being with your family. Nothing else matters at the end of the day."

But for that to happen, he said, co-ops must have "a culture of safety"—something that isn't always in focus.

"We all have pressures. Rising costs, new technologies, regulatory pressures—sure, that's all in our daily lives, and it's too easy to get distracted by these issues and sometimes let safety slip down the list," Coleman said.

"But we have to remain vigilant. We have to find new ways to keep the approach to safety fresh, because sometimes things become too routine. And that's a challenge."

Coleman thanked the more than 500 participants for attending the summit, saying it shows they take the issue seriously.

"You're here because you care about safety, because you care about your co-workers, because you care about your family, because you made it a priority."