Christmas of 2020 was a happy time for Branden Bauer. With almost 10 years of service at western Pennsylvania’s United Electric Cooperative, the journeyman lineworker had enjoyed the week off with his wife, making memories.

He returned to work that first week of 2021, and one brief moment changed his life forever.

Bauer was part of a crew that spent much of the week working on a system-improvement project. As the crew was setting a pole midspan, Bauer volunteered to transfer the three-phase line onto the new pole.

“It was all ‘hot work,’ something we’d done hundreds if not thousands of times as a crew,” Bauer recalls.

He geared up with rubber gloves and sleeves, ascended in the bucket, installed cover-up on the line and transferred the three phases. An unusual configuration on the adjacent poles had four conductors on a cross arm spanning to a three-pole structure where one of the phases was mounted in a lower position.

“The crew missed it, and I missed from the bucket,” says Bauer. “It’s something we don’t see a lot.”

When he re-ascended the pole to install a guy wire, one of the energized lines grazed his forearm.

“I remember feeling the pain of being shocked,” he recalls. “My eyes went dark, and I heard the guys on the ground screaming, ‘Get away from it.’”

Those warnings weren’t for Bauer, they were for other crewmembers still on the ground, who needed to avoid the swinging, potentially energized tail of the guy wire.

“I either passed out or died briefly,” says Bauer.

But his crewmates were determined to not let that happen. One grabbed an automated external defibrillator from a truck. Another placed a mayday call to alert United EC’s operations center. A third dialed 911 on a cellphone as an apprentice ran to the road to direct an ambulance to the worksite. The foreman went up to retrieve Bauer, who was unconscious, his gloves smoldering, and his body was almost too hot to touch.

He regained consciousness and heard a crewmember praying as another ripped off his shirt to get the AED connected.

“I remember looking down at my left hand and seeing that several of my fingers were pretty much burned off,” Bauer recalls. “I remember looking at my right arm and just seeing the carnage from the electricity going into my forearm.”

He remembers telling coworkers then that his wife was expecting, and they were preparing for the birth of a daughter.

Once paramedics arrived, Bauer was flown by helicopter to a burn unit at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He was hospitalized for five weeks. He lost both his hands to amputation and underwent three skin graft surgeries and other operations and countless hours of therapy. His physical absence from the co-op had a lasting impact on his United EC colleagues.

Teaching through tragedy

“We knew as a department we needed to get better,” says Shane Farrell, United EC’s operations manager.

The co-op’s safety committee revised hot work procedures, increased goals for monthly crew observations and began performing after-hours field visits. They also expanded the use of the S.A.F.E. job planning app, which they’d begun testing in fall of 2020.

“After Branden’s contact injury, we started using the app for all job briefings, including for outages and after-hours calls,” Farrell says.

Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange and NRECA partnered to introduce S.A.F.E. as part the Commitment to Zero Contacts initiative launched in 2018. S.A.F.E. stands for Stop and Focus Everyday and provides tools aimed at heightening awareness and reducing electrical contact injuries.

United also focused on communicating better at job sites and identifying possible hazards before work begins.

“Whether it’s your first day on the job or you have been here 30 years, you can always stop any job at any time,” says Billy Parker, United EC’s safety manager. “We have an open relationship with our guys, and they know they can come to us at any time.”

Widespread concerns

Electrical contacts contributed to 126 deaths among utility workers in the United States in 2020, according to the Electric Power Research Institute. An analysis of data tracking electrical contact incidents pegs nonfatal injuries at 4,000 per year.

Although electric co-ops work constantly to reduce electrical contact risks, they can happen at any time. A Lyon-Lincoln Electric Cooperative journeyman lineworker was injured on a routine maintenance job— removing an oil circuit closer for testing—in December 2021. The lineworker was able to return to work and retired in January 2023, but his injuries have had lasting impact on the co-op’s operations.

Lyon-Lincoln adopted C2Z recommendations in 2018 and espouses the Speak Up-Listen Up initiative, which gives employees at every grade a voice in safety matters. The contact injury prompted changes in how those concerns are addressed.

“When they call a stop to work due to a safety concern, the crews come in and we sit down and talk about what happened and what needs to be done to avoid it happening again,” says Tim O’Leary, general manager/CEO of the Tyler, Minnesota-based co-op. “After the contact incident, our safety committee met and discussed what happened and we made changes to our safety manual as it pertained to the removal of oil circuit reclosers.”

The co-op also sought outside help from both Federated and NRECA this year to identify other ways of strengthening its safety program.

“We continue to emphasize safety over restoration times at the cooperative,” says O’Leary. “We want to let our guys know that we support them in taking their time on hazardous jobs during their day and throughout the restoration process during outages.”

'Greater understanding'

Working with statewide safety and loss professionals, NRECA and Federated have completed nearly 150 safety plans designed to enhance communications between crew leaders and operations staff. Surveys conducted as part of those efforts help to identify opportunities for improvement and encourage crew chiefs to share their successes to help improve their co-op’s overall safety performance.

“When relationships are strong and safety conversations occur frequently, it provides a much greater understanding of safety and the potential shortcuts that may be occurring,” says Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety programs. “When leaders work together with employees to address the gaps, that helps mitigate the possibility of serious injuries before they can occur.”

NRECA and Federated are currently collaborating on development of a virtual reality presentation focused on downed line repairs. The simulation program, debuting this month, includes input from statewide safety professionals and is designed to encourage changes in behavior patterns that can contribute to incidents resulting in contact injuries.

“While determining the overall benefit of these initiatives and others can take years, ongoing open dialogue builds trust and creates a consistent application of critical safety processes,” says Corey Parr, Federated’s vice president of safety and loss prevention.

Positive outcomes

In many cases, serious contact injuries can close out careers, but United EC’s Branden Bauer returned to work on a limited basis in fall of 2022. He typically works about 15 hours a week, conducting worksite assessments on behalf of the co-op.

“My role is to identify hazards that aren’t always easy to spot, because I know accidents can happen so quickly,” says Bauer. “When I raise my concerns, my years of experience and my injuries are constant reminders that linework is a very dangerous field and safety should always be top priority.”

Bauer has also visited several co-ops that belong to the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association, the statewide organization for co-ops in Pennsylvania and neighboring New Jersey.

“He wants to express his appreciation to these cooperatives who’ve shown their support to him in prayers, well wishes and donations,” says CEO Brenda Swartzlander. “He has been invited to other co-ops in different states and is becoming an effective and passionate advocate for improving safety.”

While Bauer can no longer perform linework, his familiarity with the co-op’s system and the challenges of linework have made him an effective safety advocate. In April, Bauer and his wife Katelyn celebrated the arrival of their second child, another daughter.

“If we continue to give our utmost attention to details, and don’t become complacent, we can make it home safely and avoid accidents in this industry,” Bauer says. “No matter your circumstances, if you stay focused, have a positive outlook and a solid work ethic, you can achieve anything.”