BY ANN THELEN
When John Dvorak retires in March from his role with the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives (IAEC), people will miss his positive energy, knowledge and above all, his commitment to helping co-op employees go home safely each day.
For the past decade, Dvorak has served as IAEC’s Director of Safety and Loss Control, working with electric cooperatives across the state to provide safety training and general work procedures training while promoting a proactive safety culture. Before joining IAEC, Dvorak worked for Chariton Valley Electric Cooperative in south central Iowa for more than 30 years as a lineman and operations manager.
During his career, Dvorak has witnessed industry changes, technological advancements and an evolving safety culture. He is passionate about safety, and his enthusiasm is contagious. It’s contributed to the depth of safety programs across Iowa and fostered a culture where employee and member safety is always the No. 1 priority for electric cooperatives.
“Since John’s first day at IAEC, his focus was to build on and improve the safety program for electric cooperatives and the members they serve. With John’s leadership, the entire safety team has incorporated many new and innovative safety education and training ideas. His commitment and dedication have allowed us to emphasize the importance of safety and have taken the safety program to the next level. He has transformed IAEC’s safety program and is leaving it in a better place than when he started. We are grateful for John’s dedication to Iowa’s electric cooperatives,” says Chuck Soderberg, executive vice president and general manager, Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.
We recently sat down with Dvorak, where he shared some of his career experiences.
Tell us about how your career started with Iowa’s electric cooperatives.
I graduated from the Powerline Program at Northwest Iowa Community College in Sheldon and immediately started working for Chariton Valley Electric Cooperative (CVEC) as a lineman, earning $5.63 per hour. Coming out of school, my biggest fear was getting burned while working on power lines and equipment. Working in this industry can be unforgiving, and I was fortunate to have mentors at CVEC who taught me to do things right the first time, even if it takes longer.
You’ve worked a lot of long hours during storms and outages. What are some situations that stand out in your memory?
The coldest weather I ever worked in was a day with a windchill of 85 degrees below zero. Ice storms are long, tough days. During one of those storms, I once worked 42 hours consecutively and slept in coveralls at a hotel with no power for two nights. It’s what we do, and it’s in our DNA. Co-op members depend on us, and there is nothing cooler than restoring power and seeing the lights come back on. Working in the heat can be even worse. When I started, staying hydrated while working out in the sun with high heat and humidity was challenging. Today, there are products on the market, such as Gatorade, which are game-changers for this type of work.
What is it like to be a lineman?
It’s fulfilling work to know that we’re helping to power homes and businesses that ultimately improve the quality of life in areas served by electric cooperatives. Line work is demanding on your body and family. The daily grind of climbing in and out of ditches, climbing poles and construction aspects take a toll over time. It can be worrisome for our families, knowing that severe injuries and fatalities are possible if we don’t have our minds 100% on the task at hand. Through my role at IAEC, it’s been gratifying to help linemen hone their safety skills and have a mindset of safety first.
How has technology improved for line crews since your career started in the 1970s?
Technology has transformed nearly everything from the trucks and equipment to the apparel linemen wear. On the jobsite, there are better warning devices, such as lights and alarms. The trucks are bigger with rotating and elevating buckets that extend farther to reach line equipment. Many of the boom and digger trucks are now four-wheel drive. We also have more computers and Automated External Defibrillators on the trucks. Hydraulic and battery-operated tools have improved the efficiency and effectiveness of the equipment. Technology has also improved clothing with flame-retardant and high-visibility materials. Cell phones have drastically improved communication. From a power generation perspective, wind, solar, electric vehicles and battery technologies have emerged and will likely continue to change the energy landscape.
What accomplishments are you most proud of in your role at IAEC?
Knowing that our training programs helped prevent an injury or saved a life is always at the very top of the list. In addition, I’m proud of developing the four-year linemen apprenticeship training program. The U.S. Department of Labor-certified program includes 7,000 hours of online and hands-on training, study and tests. We saw a need for this type of program for electric cooperatives in Iowa and worked to implement this rigorous training effort. Working on power lines is an unforgiving business and specialized training is needed. Today, almost every state has an apprenticeship training program.
In his retirement, it’s unlikely the energetic safety leader will sit still for very long. His priority will be spending more time with his wife of 45 years, Linda – who was his high school sweetheart – and daughter, Kristine, and son, Aaron, along with their families. The first stop on the road to retirement, however, will be on sunny beach in Florida where he’ll proclaim, “I made it!” And, he’ll be right. John Dvorak always made it a better environment when he was around. Whether it was sharing his expertise, a smile or laugh, he has made Iowa’s electric cooperatives safer and will be missed.
Ann Thelen is the editor of Living with Energy in Iowa.