November 23, 2017

Empire Achieves Safety Milestone

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Chuck Sargent (left) and Robert Vaness, both of whom are 3rd Class apprentice linemen for Empire District Electric Co., work at a training site at the utility’s service center at Kodiak Road and East 32nd Street.

2 million hour mark for first time in its 105-year history
Officials to celebrate with ceremony

Workers at Empire District Electric Co. — including the 120 linemen who regularly climb utility poles and work out of bucket trucks on charged power lines — have not had a lost time workplace injury since April 2013.

That means the Joplin based utility — for the first time in its 105-year history — has gone 2 million man-hours without an in jury that required time off. Officials will celebrate that milestone with a ceremony Tuesday with representatives of the Safety Council of the Ozarks.

Tiffany Haney, marketing manager for the Safety Council, said that sort of safety record is rare, especially for a utility. “We honored Empire last May when they reached 1.5 million hours,” she said. “The next-closest utility was City Utilities (of Springfield) with 1.2 million (hours).”

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Different size poles allow linemen such as Robert Vaness to train at the service center opened this spring by Empire District Electric Co. The utility this week will celebrate completing 2 million man-hours without an injury that required time off from work.

“It takes a lot of dedication and commitment,” added Debora Biggs, the council’s executive director.

Pete Babb, Empire’s assistant director of human resources, said the emphasis on safety protects not only the employees, many of whom work in dangerous conditions and hazardous weather, but also customers and the communities the utility serves. “We’re really proud of this, because it means we’ve been able to do our jobs and get our
workers home safely to their families each day,” he said.

Training takes place at the utility’s $11 million service center at Kodiak Road and East 32nd Street, which opened this spring, and at other locations, said Rick Sprenkle, who supervises training. Linemen will have trained for 42 months before they can do everything required on the job. The first three months are spent at ground level, working on lines without electricity. They’ll have 21 months of training — a combination of supervised training, classroom work and on-the-job training with mentors — before they train with charged lines. Sprenkle, who has been with the company for more than 30 years, said safety also has improved with technological advancements. Repairs are easier when they can be done from an elevated bucket truck, for example.

“Back injuries used to be more common before we had bucket trucks, and carpal tunnel injuries were more common before we got battery powered equipment,” he said. “But there are still situations that the only way you can fix what you need to is to climb a pole, and we want to make sure they’re doing it safely.”

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Different size poles allow linemen such as Robert Vaness to train at the service center opened this spring by Empire District Electric Co. The utility this week will celebrate co mpleting 2 million man-hours without an injury that required time off from work. Chuck Sargent (right) and Robert Vaness are among the 120 linemen who work for Empire District Electric Co.

The training center includes a series of different size poles, with crossbars and lines. The setup allows Sprenkle to watch and make sure that workers using spurs and belts get in the right position to avoid injury and fatigue.
“You can tell by how many wrinkles a guy has in his shirt if he’s in the right position or not,” Sprenkle said.

Chuck Sargent and Robert Vaness were among the workers at the training site on Friday. Sargent, who has been with Empire for two years, said training “is key, because when you’re doing it right, you put a lot less strain on your body.”

Vaness, who has been with the company for a year, said he had another job earlier in which pole-climbing was required. “But they did a whole lot less training,” he said. Babb said the past year was a potentially dangerous one for Empire crews, with the April tornado in Baxter Springs, Kansas, and construction projects under way in the region.

“When people are in the dark, they (crews) want to be out fixing it, but they’ve got to do it safely,” he said.

This article by Susan Redden originally appeared in The Joplin Globe, Edition 08/18/2014