Former lineman turned tragic accident into passion for work zone safety
Kellen Schmidt shares powerful reminder to slow down, move over for roadside workers
Xcel Energy lineman Kellen Schmidt experienced many close calls in his 12 years building and repairing power lines, often along roadways. But one close call in particular was a turning point for Schmidt. On New Year's Eve a number of years ago, he and his crew were repairing a broken electrical pole when a car came flying past their work zone, plowed over the road cones and nearly hit one of the crew members. Schmidt and his co-worker Scott Knight recognized that it was just a matter of time until somebody wound up significantly hurt.
The pair put their heads together and looked for options to improve safety for roadside workers. Despite having no previous experience with the legislative process, Schmidt’s passion and commitment to safety made him a powerful influencer in changing a Minnesota law in 2019 to provide more protection for roadside workers.
Schmidt is sharing his story during National Work Zone Awareness Week, April 17-21, to encourage drivers to stay aware behind the wheel and to slow down and move over when approaching work zones.
“If you see people working along the roadway, imagine that being your family along the roadway,” said Schmidt. “Why wouldn't you want to slow down and move over? Those may not be your loved ones, but they are somebody's loved ones.”
Xcel Energy and the American Traffic Safety Services Association are educating the public about this important topic. Working next to roadways, where a number of utility lines are located, can be dangerous: cars speed by, drivers may be distracted and there’s the added hazard of working with electricity. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 857 people were killed in work zones and 117 workers lost their lives in construction zones in 2020, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
These days Schmidt works as a blue hat for Xcel Energy’s Distribution operations team. A blue hat is an employee who helps bring management and bargaining employees together to address safety concerns and find solutions.
“I didn't know if I was going to like that career,” said Schmidt. “But it's a great career. I would do anything in the world to get back out on the line, but you play the cards you're dealt. I'm very happy Xcel Energy was willing to bring me back.”
Most states have passed move-over laws protecting workers by requiring motorists to slow down and merge away from a vehicle working on the side of the road. Many drivers are unaware that the law in their state also protects utility workers (including most states where Xcel Energy operates), and they could receive a ticket for not moving over or reducing their speed significantly when passing them.
There is no margin for error when driving in a work zone; drivers must dedicate their full attention to everyone safe. The safety of the essential workers who ensure we all have reliable electric and natural gas service is in drivers’ hands. So, when you see an Xcel Energy vehicle (or other emergency, construction or maintenance vehicle) working on the side of the road, please follow these safe driving practices:
- Slow down as you approach the work zone.
- When possible, safely move over to provide workers with a clear buffer lane from traffic.
- If you can’t move over safely, reduce your speed to 20 miles per hour below the posted speed limit as you pass the work zone.
- Never use your mobile device while operating a vehicle.