Electric cooperatives in Minnesota have launched a new awards program to encourage employees to make safety a commitment on and off the job.

The LIFEguard on Duty Award is a “great way to honor those who’ve acted to save lives or prevent serious injuries and found ways to turn those experiences into teachable moments with lasting impact on others,” said Lidia Dilley Jacobson, the Minnesota Rural Electric Association’s director of safety and loss control.

Jacobson and her staff began working on the initiative and talking to operations staff at their member co-ops in the fall of 2019. Slated for rollout in 2020, it was shelved for a year as COVID-19 pandemic mitigation became a major safety focus. As co-ops reopened their offices, LIFEguard was officially launched and the first two honorees were announced this summer, nearly two years after their actions helped prevent serious injuries.

One of the award winners, Glenn Blommel, operations manager at Stearns Electric Association, received a call in June 2019 at his Melrose, Minnesota, office about an outage on an underground service line.

The conversation that followed focused on the potential danger the part-time summer hire placed himself and others in by digging into an unmarked easement with energized power lines present.

A few days later, Blommel got a note from a line superintendent at a neighboring co-op thanking him for the lasting impression he made on his son, who headed to line school last fall.

“He told me what he had done and that you took the time to talk to him about the dangers of what he was doing,” wrote the superintendent. “I believe it was quite a learning experience for him.”

In July, the statewide association recognized Ryan Kemnitz, a journeyman line technician with Grand Forks, North Dakota-based Minnkota Power Cooperative.

The generation and transmission co-op maintains some transmission assets in Minnesota, and Kemnitz was driving through Bemidji when he saw a bucket truck operator make contact with an energized line while working on a traffic signal.

A contact flash, followed by a fireball, prompted Kemnitz to stop at the scene. He checked on the bucket truck operator and located the damaged energized lines, using his co-op vehicle to block access to the area.

After activating the emergency flashers on his bucket truck, he used a fire extinguisher to put out a grassfire under the other truck, which was still in contact with the energized line. He also checked on a contract employee inside the vehicle.

With the three-phase line still blocking the road and traffic backing up, Kemnitz demanded a pause, based upon Minnkota’s work rules.

“If it’s not your system, you don’t work on it; you don’t touch it,” Kemnitz recalled. Despite the insistence of the signal light contractor, Kemnitz refused to move the energized line or share his tools or equipment with them to do so. He also urged patience from the firefighters and emergency medical technicians who arrived at the scene.

Kemnitz was vindicated when a municipal utility employee showed up and delayed any action until he was joined by a co-worker authorized and equipped to move the lines.

“The owner of the line confirmed the line was energized, and this lineman still did not move the line until another employee from that company shut down the circuit and conveyed to him the line was now de-energized,” said MREA’s Jacobson. “Many potential injuries or fatalities were avoided because of Ryan.”

As more LIFEguard honorees are identified across the statewide association’s membership, Jacobson is hoping the program reinforces the overall goals of safety training, which include constant vigilance and the commitment to speak up to reduce risks.

“The message behind LIFEguard on Duty is that it gives co-op employees and their families constant reminders that people are stepping up to save lives and prevent injuries both on and off the job,” said Jacobson. “When we recognize people for that, we inspire others to do the same, and that helps promote the culture of safety we’ve set as a goal. My hope is that every one of you has a LIFEguard on Duty at your cooperative.”