Electric cooperative safety and loss officials are warning that new distractions created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruption of normal safety training activities are contributing to an increase in electric contact incidents among operations personnel.

“The virus has created an increased level of distractions both at work and at home for our employees,” says Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety. “This increase is a real concern among our member co-ops.”

Branham attributes some of this increase to what he calls “brain-centered hazards:” distracted attention, increased stress and urgency, and fast-brain thinking—a tendency to complete important but routine tasks with little conscious thought—fueled by external pressures.

Since the formal launch of the Commitment to Zero Contacts campaign in 2018, the number of electrical contacts reported to Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange dropped to 17 the first full year and 15 the second, down from an annual average of 20 during the previous decade.

As of July 2020, an annualized estimate shows the possibility of 21 such incidents this year. Safety, loss, and training professionals across the co-op network are particularly concerned about serious injuries and fatalities that could result.

“We view serious injuries as any incident that affects the quality of someone’s life,” says Corey Parr, Federated’s vice president for safety and loss prevention.

The co-op insurance exchange is a worker’s compensation insurance provider for more than 540 of the nation’s electric co-ops.

“It’s disappointing when we look at the first seven months of 2020 and compare it to 2019, we have experienced more than twice the number of contacts,” says Parr, adding that June through September have historically been the worst months for electrical contacts among co-op personnel.

“It is very important that we all recommit during this time to hold each other accountable to a consistent interpretation and application of our life-saving rules: everyone, every time and everywhere,” he says. “Designated observers are crucial when energized work takes place but even more important with the distractions we are facing to eliminate shortcuts.”

As part of the overall pandemic response, much of the formal safety awareness training once conducted face-to-face is now done via virtual meetings or videos. Safety officials are calling for refocused emphasis on the basics, including personal protection equipment use, testing and grounding, appropriate cover and following proper clearance procedures.

“We really want people to slow down and understand that distractions currently are present at higher levels and there’s more stress,” Branham says. “There’s more temptation for fast-brain thinking to take over, especially on routine work, and those everyday tasks are often the types of situations that can lead to serious incidents.”

More: Commitment to Zero Contacts Toolkit