Working at GVEA: Safety is the Name of the Game

GVEA’s safety team loves what they do. From left: Natasha Whitmoyer, Norm Alden, Patti Sellner, Bobbie Perkins. Grace Wilson

Employees at Golden Valley Electric Association can’t wait for next month’s all-employee safety training. Every employee is going to learn how to use a fire extinguisher and actually put out a real fire.

“People are already signing up,” says GVEA Safety Specialist Bobbie Perkins. “People are so excited. We try to make it entertaining and provide good information.”

This is the kind of enthusiasm GVEA’s safety team strives to earn.

The current safety culture at GVEA is more of a joint venture between employees and safety specialists, whose goal is to make sure that employees return home safely to their families every night, “with all of their fingers and all their toes, the same way they come to us every morning,” Bobbie says.

Safety is one of GVEA’s core principles. It is fundamental to how the cooperative operates and its overall success.

Every meeting with employees or members begins with a safety moment as a reminder to be safe at work and in the home. While employees strive to work as quickly as possible to limit impacts to members, the work can often be dangerous, so it remains a priority for employees to ensure their tasks are performed safely.

For that to happen, everyone must work together. The days of safety officers prowling the hallways trying to spot safety violations are gone, at least at this electric co-op.

“It just seems like, with generational changes, a younger work force coming, the old mentality of having that safety enforcement, a safety cop kind of thing is not nearly as successful as it used to be,” says Norm Alden, GVEA Safety Manager.

At GVEA, the safety team helps workers personally “own their own safety,” says Norm.

That requires building relationships, credibility and trust. Norm views it as more of a service approach than an enforcement approach. The safety team works hard to understand the employees and the challenges they face in their jobs. Some employees work amid noise, heat, pressure, from heights and some work around dangerous electrical lines.

Equipment needs to be top notch.

When Trust Is Established, Everyone Is Safer.

Just ask Patti Sellner, safety specialist at the power plant in Healy. One of the first things she did when she joined the 70-member staff in Healy was to take down the “Environmental Health and Safety” sign outside her office.

“That’s not very inviting,” she remembers thinking.

The sign on her office now says: “The Safety Lounge” and the space is filled with Christmas lights, a lava lamp, and handheld tools to occupy fidgety fingers.

“I want people to come in here and talk about anything they want to talk about,” she says. “We have a position similar to

Human Resources, it’s confidential and we can talk about anything affecting work or their personal life.”
As a mother and a grandmother, this nearly 5-foot-tall professional has the patience and experience needed for the job, which is massive.

The GVEA safety team keeps track of employee training every month and constant annual training. Most of it occurs as hands-on training and is done face to face.

Patti walks the floors of the Healy plant every day and she doesn’t sneak up on people, she says.

“I have Christmas lights on my hard hat, so I try to make myself pretty visible,” she says.

Employees often include her in brainstorming when they are figuring out a solution to a potentially dangerous project.

“We work together to figure out how to fix it,” she says.

It’s Not Just Big Safety Issues. It’s Little Things, Too.

Norm Alden, GVEA’s Safety Manger. Todd Paris, Paris photgraphics

Bottles must be properly labeled. Cords must be picked up to avert tripping hazards. Combustibles must be stored properly. Contractors must fill out work permits every day, so the control room knows where they are in the plant.
Workers must regularly train for working in confined spaces with special gas detectors to ensure their safety.

“We probably do 2,000 confined space entries a year, at least,” Patti says.

Regular training on the control of hazardous energy ensures workers know how to use the “Lock Out Tag Out” system. Everyone must review steps taken when a system needs to be shut down, when someone is working on it. Then, that needs to be double-checked.

Winds can be ferocious in Healy, so the safety office there installed nylon straps on the doors of GVEA vehicles, so when a door opens in a big wind, it only opens as far as the strap allows.

Sometimes the safety issues are easy to address. For instance, employees in member services recently asked Bobbie if GVEA can provide high-visibility vests for employees who take quick walks during their workday breaks. Daylight will soon dwindle and they want to be visible.

The safety team keeps an eye on ergonomics, so employees sitting at desks all day sit in as healthy a way as possible and refrain from overexerting their wrists while sitting at a computer.

Safety Parameters are Always Evolving

“As a safety professional, it is continual learning,” Bobbie says. “What we thought was safe yesterday, sometimes we find out it could be safer. It’s an ever-evolving topic.”

“That’s kind of why I like it so much,” she says. “I love learning something new every day.”

“The safety team works hard to promote a culture of togetherness,” Bobbie says, adding, “I feel like it has come a long way.”

For the newest member of the team, administrative assistant Natasha Whitmoyer, that togetherness is obvious and welcome. She recently moved to Alaska from out of state.

“It’s definitely a great culture,” she says. “Employees here are welcome to come into the safety office. They actually like to, which I love.”

Using safe work practices should be second nature, and the safety team works hard to instill that in all GVEA employees, their families and the co-op’s members. They put great effort into being approachable, because if an employee has a question or concern about safety, they shouldn’t feel any apprehension about bringing it up with the team.

Safety will always be GVEA’s number one priority, and the safety team takes that seriously.

GVEA Safety Creed

No job is so important and no service so urgent that we cannot take the time to perform it safely. Accident- free production is more humane and a better use of time than healing injuries and mending bones.
Accident prevention, quality control, cost containment, and productivity are all enhanced by the same activities.

Accidents do not just happen, they are caused. By determining and working to eliminate the causes, accidents can be prevented.

All jobs can be completed without accidents through foresight; critical thinking; planning; and investigating, discovering, and correcting factors that are shown to cause accidents.

Our first responsibility is to conduct our affairs and carry out our duties in a manner that will avoid injury to us, to our co-workers, and to others.

We owe it to our families as their providers, to society as good citizens, to our members as good employees, and to ourselves as individuals to avoid accidents and personal injury.

Accepting and applying these principles can become a way of life keeping the things we hold dear more secure.