Don’t Take Anything for Granted: How a fatal incident led to an increased focus on safety

By Marlena Chertock | May 15, 2022
Illustration of two workers with a truck working on a power pole. Image by Getty Images / armckw.
They were truck partners. Mike Starner, now NECA director of outside line safety, and another troubleman in his 30s shared equipment and a truck to drive to work sites.

They were truck partners. Mike Starner, now NECA director of outside line safety, and another troubleman in his 30s shared equipment and a truck to drive to work sites.

“He was three or four years ahead of me, a peer, an existing troubleman,” Starner said. “I remember how lucky I felt to be assigned a truck with this guy. He was well-liked and took a lot of responsibility for how he maintained his truck.”

One night, Starner’s truck partner was working the midnight shift clearing a modular substation, which means isolating and completely disconnecting it from power. A standard substation footprint includes steel structures and various equipment with incoming and outgoing power. He needed to remove fuses and open switches on either side of the substation, on the overhead pole and underground line.

Starner came in the next morning expecting to talk to his truck partner and gain insight into the service area for the day. But the man had died during his overnight shift. He had made direct contact with 34 kilovolts.

“The procedure is to go and do line switching,” Starner said. “Shed load off the station, so it wouldn’t cause customer outages. There’s a circuit breaker on the line side and the load side, which are opened remotely.”

This should have electrically isolated the substation. But, according to an investigation, it wasn’t physically isolated; the fuses were still energized.

“They missed the step of isolating on the pole line and just relied on the physical substation to isolate,” he said.

After the accident, Starner kept driving the same truck, following the same procedures and using the same equipment. He remembers seeing his truck partner’s pack of gum on the dashboard, his safety glasses and finding a notebook with his handwriting inside. These little details seared into his memory.

It was eerie, he said, and he got a strong sense that something needed to change.

“This is not a unique story,” Starner said. “Our industry has fatalities, and there’s always this personal connection.”

A transition into the world of safety

“I was a wild, reckless kind of guy,” Starner said. “Just like a lot of the folks who do this work. Type A, rock-and-roller, adrenaline junkies—that’s what attracts folks to this business.”

At the time of this incident, Starner was early in his career and halfway through his training program. After graduating from high school, he started in the utility industry and progressed from entry-level line-clearance tree trimmer to lineworker, and then to service operator (known as a troubleman). He was responsible for responding to electrical emergencies and outages, conducting line switching and opening and closing switches in preparation for work, which is generally done overnight on the midnight shift.

“I wasn’t unsafe, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to if I was being safe,” Starner said. “Not a lot of attention to self-preservation.”

After a series of injuries and close calls at the company, followed by his truck partner’s death, Starner felt compelled to act. The week of the accident, the director of Starner’s department came to the service center to discuss the importance of workplace safety with the employees. He asked the director how to get involved and was placed on teams that worked on safety.

“For the first time, I felt a true calling,” he said. “It changed my mental model for how I’m going to work with others and protect myself. For the first time ever, I’m not taking things for granted.”

Now in his role at NECA, Starner works to put programs in place that will protect workers. These safety programs are geared toward experienced and newer workers.

Starner uses his experience as a lineman to encourage workers to strictly follow safety procedures. Having worked in the field, he gained a deep understanding of what makes someone make a split-second decision on the job, which can have a life-changing impact.

“Being from the field helps you with credibility when you’re trying to send a [safety] message,” he said. “It helps to understand what is required in terms of time, resources and management when implementing a new regulation, initiative or procedure.”

Predisposed to taking chances

Electrical contractors tend to have a high level of risk tolerance due to the hazardous nature of their jobs, Starner said.

“We’re predisposed to taking chances and risks,” he said.

But when an experienced employee becomes overconfident, they can make silly mistakes.

“The more time [a worker] is in the job, they get used to things,” he said. “They know the procedures and skip steps. That’s where we get into problems.”

On the other end, newer, more inexperienced workers require mentorship and apprenticeship programs. And they should stay true to their classification, according to Starner.

“Don’t get ahead of yourselves,” he said. “You’ll get there in time. Discipline and safety is important.”

Safety and health are core values at NECA—making up its Standing Policy Statement No. 19. NECA provides a variety of safety training programs and materials; integrates safety into project planning and management; and partners with federal agencies and consensus organizations to develop and implement safety-related requirements.

“Electrical contracting is a well-established industry with a lot of processes,” Starner said.

Avoid distractions

In addition to NPFA 70E Resources, Construction Forklift and Jobsite ATV safety guides, resources are being developed for the outside line industry for protective covering, testing methods and verifying when circuits are de-­­energized. Starner called them isolate and insulate procedures as well as personal protective grounding to enhance workers’ understanding of PPE.

Distracted driving is a major concern.

“Throughout the entire world, there’s distracted driving,” Starner said. “For me, that’s a big focus area to see how we can have our contractors be more successful in vehicle safety programs.”

Another focus is driver and vehicle safety. The No. 1  cause of death in work zones is transportation-related injuries, both for drivers and passengers, according to Starner.

Technology such as blind spot detection, backup cameras and advanced lighting could improve driver safety.

Drivers are often required to have a Class A license. While apprentices may have passed the test and received their license, they may lack the proper experience with the equipment and large trucks.

“There are complexities to driving and towing equipment in our business,” Starner said. “Are they experienced with close-quarter maneuvering? A lot of the equipment is top-heavy and difficult to drive with.”

Building a strong team

Establishing team dynamics, especially in the crew environment, is critical to creating a safe environment. Crews need to ensure everyone understands their role and the procedures, Starner said.

One of the most important ways to keep people safe is to encourage a questioning environment.

“You have to have trust on the job site,” Starner said. “You need to be able to openly debate the conditions or the action plan without people getting offended.”

If something on a job isn’t going according to plan or challenges surface, he said, workers should speak up and ask questions, pause, assess the situation, check the procedures and correct as they go.

“Having that questioning attitude to stop if something doesn’t feel right offers protection from an overconfident person who is leading the job in the wrong direction,” Starner said. “Take the pride out of it and take the ego out of it. Just come together as one operating team and make sure everyone goes home safe at the end of the day.”

Header image by Getty Images / armckw.

About The Author

Chertock is a poet and renewable energy and science journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. Contact her at [email protected].





featured Video


New from Lutron: Lumaris tape light

Want an easier way to do tunable white tape light?


Related Articles