NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Four years later, it still haunts Jason Siegfried.
“I’ll never forget the look on Jeremy’s face when his wife and I walked into that burn unit,” said Siegfried. They were there that December 2013 day to see Jeremy White, a lineman at Southern Pine Electric, who came into contact with a power line while on a service call.
“He was lying there, missing part of his left arm and both legs below the knee. He couldn’t talk for all the machines hooked up. But his expression, as he shrugged his shoulders and looked at his wife, said clearly, ‘I’m sorry.’”
White died Jan. 11, 2014. He was 36 and left behind a wife, daughter and son.
It might not be a typical thing to hear about at the NRECA Annual Meeting, but Siegfried made clear it needs to be.
“I believe there is not a single topic to be discussed during this annual meeting that’s more important than the safety of the men and women at our co-ops,” he said to applause from the packed room at the Feb 26 opening session.
As CEO of Taylorsville, Mississippi-based Southern Pine Electric, Siegfried called on fellow co-op leaders to “band together to annihilate complacency, and place accountability front and center.” He said it’s the only way to accomplish NRECA’s goal of zero contacts.
A moving video, “A Lineman’s Call—The Story of Jeremy White,” was played at the general session. It’s told by his widow, Liz, and the colleagues he left behind.
“I want you to know that creating that video was hard. As many times as I’ve watched it, it never gets any easier,” said Siegfried, who often wonders why White was in such a hurry that he overlooked several safety rules.
“I’ll admit I was angry. It never should have happened,” said Siegfried.
“But at some point I realized that instead of asking why Jeremy did the things he did, I need to focus on what can I change.”
To that end, Siegfried urged meeting participants to think long and hard about what they need to do when they return home.
At Southern Pine Electric, “We demanded that each person, no matter rank or tenure, take complete ownership in holding themselves and others accountable,” said Siegfried. “No more shortcuts. No more covering for anyone regardless of how small or minor the violation may seem.”
He acknowledged it isn’t easy. But neither is going to a burn unit—or a funeral.
“I’ve looked some people in the eye and said some pretty harsh words about what safety violations will mean moving forward. And here today I’d like to look you in the eye and say this is where a movement can begin to lead this industry.”
This video is the property of Southern Pine Electric Cooperative and may be used for safety training only. Its use for any other purpose is strictly prohibited.
NRECA’s Safety Leadership Summit takes place April 25-27 in Atlanta. Details are available on cooperative.com.
Michael W. Kahn is a staff writer at NRECA.