Recently I was thinking back over my career as a lineman. There was a man – we called him Big Jim – who was our safety guy from the time I started in the industry until I had been a lineman for about 20 years. Jim always sported a crew cut and a green hard hat that didn't have a scratch on it; the rumor was he waxed his hat to keep it shiny. I’m unsure if he served in the military, but Big Jim behaved like a borderline drill sergeant on the job. He got right to his point and was a stickler for safety rules.
For instance, Big Jim used to visit the crew to check on everything. He would start by going through the bins on the trucks. If he found a chainsaw or saw blade with no cover, he would toss it on the ground and continue his inspection. If tools were worn out or in need of repair? That was a big problem – he would remove them from the truck and toss those on the ground, too. Hooks with no gaff guards? You knew you were dead meat. After Big Jim was done with the bin inspection, he would interrogate us about why there were no blade or gaff guards, and why faulty tools were still on the truck.
Sometimes Big Jim would watch the crew and ask us questions: Was the line grounded properly? Were we using the handline instead of going up and down to get materials? “No seesawing that bucket, guys” was one of his favorite things to say.
On another occasion, we were working on a job changing out a transformer. Our safety rules required us to chock the wheels and ground the bucket truck whenever the bucket was in the air. To get to the transformer, we had put the bucket facing against traffic on the side of a busy road. Suddenly I heard the lineman in the bucket yell out, “Here comes Big Jim!” The foreman started yelling at me that the truck wasn’t grounded and that I needed to hurry up and do it before Big Jim saw that it wasn’t grounded. Big Jim pulled up, front bumper to front bumper with the bucket truck. Since I was at the back of the truck and hidden from his view, I quickly grounded the truck to the pole ground while Big Jim was getting out of his vehicle. He proceeded to walk straight to the back of the truck, then looked at me and said, “I saw you grounding the truck. You guys didn’t have it done, did you?” We were busted. To this day I never figured out how he saw me.
Written in Blood
As I matured into a seasoned lineman, I got the opportunity to be around Big Jim more often, and I finally had the opportunity to sit down and really talk to him during a storm restoration trip. I asked him, “Jim, why are you always so hard and rigid on us when it comes to safety rules? Some of the guys think you are pretty difficult.” He slowly turned his head toward me and said, “You know, Spooner, every one of those rules we have in that safety manual was written in blood. I have been here a lot longer than you, and I personally helped write some of those rules after someone was injured or killed. I never want to see another employee or their family go through that kind of pain again. So, I really don’t care if people think I’m difficult. I do it because I care for people and their families.”
It’s been 25 years since Big Jim and I had that conversation, and I still try to put into practice what he taught me. I perform occasional safety observations for our crews, and I do my best to always come across as caring – because I do care, deeply. Now that I have almost 40 years of industry experience, I have seen many people injured on the job. I, too, have helped write new safety rules that were a result of someone getting hurt or dying. I have witnessed the pain that employees and families go through when someone they care about is injured or killed.
Today, I am quick to use the “written in blood” phrase during safety observations, along with an explanation to workers that I am not looking to get anyone in trouble; I simply want to help everyone go home safely at the end of the day. Is everyone always happy that I’m there? No, no one wants to be told they are not doing something right, but that’s OK – I know why I am doing it.
If you are a safety professional or anyone else who performs safety observations, you can learn many lessons from Big Jim, just like I did. I challenge you to remember that every rule you work to enforce was written in real people’s blood. Being a safety professional and conducting safety observations isn’t just about enforcing rules – you have to come from a place of genuine care for people. So, before you step out of your vehicle or walk over to someone to talk about something you believe could be done better or more safely, repeat to yourself, “I care about this employee and their family.” That should put you in the right frame of mind – and it would make Big Jim proud.
About the Author: David Spooner has worked in the utility industry since 1979, first as a lineman in South Carolina and now for a utility in Hawaii. His focus is keeping employees safe and helping them expand their leadership skills. He can be contacted via LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/davidaspooner/.
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