Aarron Graham was only 8, but the memories of the flashing lights coming down the long gravel driveway, the men getting out of the trucks, the knock—they’re all still crystal clear.
“Three DEMCO employees and a state trooper were at the door,” he recalls. “Someone told my 12-year-old brother, ‘Your father may be dead.’”
It was late summer 1981, and Shelby Graham was a 31-year-old journeyman service technician for
Baton Rouge-based DEMCO. That evening, he was on a three-man crew restoring power to a chicken house after a storm.
A visual inspection indicated the circuit was open and deenergized, but a breaker near the road was still closed.
“I was in the bucket with a wire in my hand, and when I put the two ends together,” Shelby says, “that’s when I got electrocuted.”
The blast of 14,400 volts was devastating. Current entered under his right arm, causing severe burns and muscle damage, and coursed through his body, blowing out several ribs and leaving a gaping exit wound in his left side.
He woke up five days later in a hospital bed.
‘Making this industry better’
For Aarron, a former journeyman lineworker who is now the director of safety and loss control at the
Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives (ALEC), the pain of that night and his dad’s agonizing recovery shaped how he’s approached his professional life.
“After seeing what my dad went through, I set out with a purpose: making this industry better.”
Co-op safety messaging frequently focuses on the impact of accidents and injuries on a worker’s family. Aarron says living through that side of the experience drove the safety message home, and he frequently shares his father’s story at safety meetings.
Shelby spent nine months in the hospital’s burn unit, and his badly injured right arm and back needed more than a dozen surgeries to repair.
“My wounds had to be cleaned inside and out to prevent gangrene, and my rehabilitation included both physical and occupational therapy,” he says.
When he returned home, a visiting nurse would stop by regularly to remove scar tissue from his surface wounds to help promote healing.
“We kids had to be sent outside because dad would scream and cuss a lot, even with the morphine,” Aarron recalls.
Shelby says what motivated him through it all was his desire to rejoin his line crew.
“My number-one goal was to get back to work,” Shelby says. “I had three young kids.”
He started with simple hand exercises, squeezing a ball of putty to restore strength and movement to his healing arm. It eventually advanced to arm wrestling with his daughter.
“It took three or four months before I could beat that girl,” Shelby says, laughing.
Throughout it all, his climbing belt, hooks, and other gear hung prominently in the house.
“I saw it every day,” Shelby says. “My goal was to not just be able to strap it on but to get strong enough to use it, so there’d be no doubt in anyone’s mind that I could get back to work.”
He eventually turned his attention to a wooden utility pole in his yard.
About 14 months after he was injured, he was in the gear, gradually relearning how to inch his way upwards and back down safely.
One Saturday afternoon, after several months of solo practice, Shelby called the friend and DEMCO crewmate who’d pulled him from the bucket that night and asked him to come over—with his own hooks and belt.
“I told him we were going to the top of the telephone pole, and I wanted him up there with me in case I got into trouble,” Shelby says.
He made it. And within a few weeks of that, he was moving up and down well enough for his partner to back his efforts to go back to work.
He was assigned to a construction crew, with more personnel and a lot of on-the-job evaluation. And while Shelby was glad to be back, he would often tell his sons that line work was the only career he wanted them to stay away from.
Neither one heeded his advice.
‘This was my purpose’
“I had to tell my dad that the only profession in the world I wanted was the one he said he’d kill us if we ever tried it,” Aarron says. He’d gone to a trade school after high school and found no satisfaction working in the Baton Rouge area’s factories.
So, with his older brother, Shelby, already doing underground utility work, Aarron convinced his dad to help him begin his utility career working for a DEMCO contractor.
His welcome to the industry was ominous.
“I was replacing a man who’d been electrocuted and died,” Aarron says he found out several months into his apprenticeship. “Images of me at 8 years old, remembering what my dad went through, filled my mind. It really put safety up front for me.”
It was 1993, and then-DEMCO Safety and Loss Manager Kerry Smith was aggressively promoting a “safety culture” to help reduce the risks associated with line work.
“Kerry Smith was quite safety-minded for the times. He worried about gloves and line coverings,” Aarron recalls. “He not only expected DEMCO employees to meet his standards, but contractors on his jobs had to comply too.”
When he was promoted to serviceman, the same job his father held at the time of his injury, Aarron was in school pursuing an occupational safety degree.
“I wanted to make sure no 8-year-old boy or any other kid whose dad was a lineman would ever see bright lights coming down a long gravel road,” he says. “I knew in my gut that this was my purpose.”
In 2005, he became the first college graduate in his family.
Dialogue and discussion
That year, Mike Bergeaux, the Louisiana statewide’s new director of loss control, was looking for someone to fill the safety and loss coordinator post he’d just left. He remembered a young service tech he’d met who had completed a safety internship at DEMCO.
When filling the post came down to Aarron and another lineman, Aarron’s academic credentials won out.
“Having field experience meant I understood what lineworkers and other operations staff are supposed to do,” he says. “And my training exposed me to the regulations and practical things stressed in educational programs.”
That blend, coupled with Bergeaux’s guidance, has helped build a widely respected culture of safety at ALEC that has paid dividends in consistently reduced numbers on accidents and near-misses.
“Many people wind up as the safety guy by accident, but I purposely set out to try to make this industry better, safer,” says Aarron, who took over the senior safety post at the statewide in March when Bergeaux retired.
He says one of his techniques is to encourage dialogue and discussion at training sessions rather than canned presentations.
“We spend as much time with the crews as we can, not just in safety and training sessions but in the field and on job sites doing safety inspections and getting feedback from them on their concerns about performance and safety,” he says. “Our numbers have consistently improved, and last year, our member co-ops had just two lost-time incidents for injuries and no contacts.”
‘Nobody ever had a risk-free day’
As for the elder Graham, now 70 and retired, he spends his time fishing, telling stories, and working around the house. After returning to work at DEMCO for a few years, he found his way into a safety post with a construction scaffolding company.
“I’ve worked in every state in the USA except two, and I’ve traveled all over the world,” he says, and he still offers lessons about safety.
“We always worry about the big things like being atop a 90-foot pole working 69,000 volts. But you can’t take a 30-foot pole and a simple service connection for granted. That’s when you get hurt,” Shelby says.
“Nobody ever has a risk-free day. There’s a safety rule for everything we do. We have those rules because somebody got hurt doing it, and we learn from them to help keep that from ever happening again."