Haven teaches lessons on everything from lightning protection to helicopter hazards but he has become best known for his grounding classes using the famous dirt box teaching tool he invented in the early 1970s

Haven teaches lessons on everything from lightning protection to helicopter hazards, but he has become best known for his grounding classes using the famous dirt box teaching tool he invented in the early 1970s. ​

Harvey Haven: BPA’s Patron Saint of Safety

The dirt box was Haven’s answer to the string of tragedies. Haven was inducted into the International Lineman's Hall of Fame last year. See gallery...

Long before there was “operational excellence” at the Bonneville Power Administration, there was Harvey Haven.

After applying his enormous energies to safety and improvement in BPA’s field work for 50 years, Haven holds a unique place in the hearts of those in transmission line maintenance (TLM).

Master teacher, 24/7 problem-solver, patron saint of all that’s best about Bonneville – there aren’t words strong enough to sum up their admiration for Harvey Haven, so linemen just call him “the godfather of TLM.”

“It’s not a matter of ‘like.’ They love him,” says Wilson Construction training officer Bill Stone, one of many across the Pacific Northwest proud to call Haven a mentor.

“There’s only one Harvey,” says Gary Westling, retired Olympia, Wash., foreman III who serves as a BPA substation safety watcher. “I’d do anything for Harvey. I’d go 10,000 miles for him.”

“Harvey is one of those folks who broke the mold,” says Brad Bea, BPA chief safety officer, the title Haven held when he retired in 1994. “The depth and breadth of his experience is one of those unheard-of attributes that make him so approachable and valuable to everyone in the electrical industry.”

With safety recently elevated to one of BPA’s four core values, the rest of the organization will have to raise its game to catch up with its homegrown guru. At 73, Haven writes the “Safe Haven” safety newsletter and teaches 30 classes every year as a contractor for BPA on subjects including grounding and rigging at BPA’s Technical Training Center in Vancouver, Wash.

“Someone recently walked up to Harvey and told him they always thought he was much taller than he actually is,” says Gary Marx, manager of the training center. “That's because in so many of our minds, Harvey is 10 feet tall. Anyone lucky enough to have had his training will agree.”

After teaching at private utilities, construction firms and apprentice training programs across the country, Haven’s sphere of influence stretches well beyond the 15,000 linear miles of Northwest transmission owned by BPA, the “outstanding outfit” he joined as a young Army veteran in 1964.

“It’s amazing, at every utility we’ve visited – from the East Coast to California – there’s somebody who knows Harvey,” says Jeremy Jackson, the Olympia District foreman I who has traveled the country to benchmark fall-protection strategies to better protect BPA’s workforce.

“He’s established a huge following among linemen across our industry because of his communication ability and technical prowess,” said Brady Hansen, Avista Corp. apprentice trainer and former BPA foreman III. “It’s common to meet linemen from several states away who are Harvey Haven fans.”

One time, Haven and his wife, Debbie, were driving back from a vacation and stopped to observe a line crew at work in the middle of nowhere in Nevada. “You’re Harvey Haven!” exclaimed one of the men, peering expectantly in the back of their car. “So did you bring the dirt box?”

Try to track down the industry giant and he might be up to his ears in the latest science on lightning and line safety. He might be leading a lesson on electrical grounding for a Wilson Construction crew in Calgary, or out on a dusty right-of-way in Montana, dropping the tailgate and hauling out his famous dirt box for a circle of BPA linemen.

Wherever he goes, he’s almost always accompanied by that signature invention and totemic teaching tool. Thomas Edison had his light bulb, Johnny Cash had his black guitar and Harvey Haven has his dirt box – a well-traveled instrument that has provided life-saving aha moments for generations of Northwest linemen over the past 40 years.

Haven was born on a momentous date in the history of electric power in the Northwest – March 23, 1941, the day the Bonneville-Grand Coulee transmission line was energized – and moved to Grand Coulee, Wash., as a young boy. He began at BPA as a groundman, a lineman’s assistant, in Spokane in 1964.

He loved Bonneville from the get-go: “Couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and go to work. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I still feel that way.”

But almost immediately, it became obvious that the interesting work, the camaraderie, the travel and the good pay were accompanied by mortal hazards. Worse yet, the inherent risks in the trade were magnified by gaps in the shared knowledge and training of the era.

Everyone knew that grounding – specific steps to connect electrical wiring and equipment to the earth – was essential to safeguard workers from accidental exposure to high voltages. But the utility industry was laboring under two competing theories and methods of grounding. A common practice called bracket grounding – where a lineman would work between two grounds – persisted even though it could be fatal under the wrong conditions.

“Line crews were nomadic,” Haven explains. “There would be men on the same crew who came from across the country. Depending on their background, they had different ways of doing things. They would pencil out a diagram and decide at the work site.”

A mistake that happens around high-voltage electricity is a matter of life or death. Within Haven’s first two months at Bonneville, his foreman in Spokane took him to witness the body of a lineman who had been electrocuted being lowered from a tower.

Over the next few years, Haven advanced to BPA apprentice, journeyman, foreman III and safety officer. On his own time, he further educated himself through daily study via correspondence course, earning certificates in electrical engineering as well as power-line design and construction.

Origin of the 'Dirt Box'

Meanwhile, horrible accidents continued around the region, finally including one on his own crew. “It’s a life-changing event,” he says. “Nobody ever is the same, ever again.”

He found the deaths unbearable.

“In the first five years that I worked at Bonneville, there were five linemen electrocuted, four that I knew,” he says. “Some of them were BPA linemen and others were construction linemen. I just decided that if I could make a difference, I’d do everything that I could.”

He began a career-long habit of analyzing accident reports, looking for patterns, then working on strategies to make safety training more effective. What was really lacking, he thought, was a concrete means of showing how improper grounding could kill and accomplishing that lesson in a way that would make a permanent impression on the hardest lineman head.

“Linemen are pretty independent characters,” he says. “They don’t like electrical diagrams – they want to see the actual stuff. And they don’t like to hear about laws. I always tell them it’s not just the law of gravity you have to worry about, there’s Ohm’s law, too.” (That’s V=IR, current flowing in a conductor is directly proportional to the potential difference between its ends.)

The dirt box was Haven’s answer to the string of tragedies.

“I had an epiphany,” he says simply.

Working in his driveway in Gresham, Ore., he banged together a pine box, filled it with garden dirt and added two wood-dowel “towers,” connecting them with copper wire and grounding them. Then he mounted a light bulb, representing a lineman at work, on the wire between the towers. He soldered the wire to a handy electrical source, a car battery from a ’64 Olds.

He tested his invention and saw the bulb light – uncontestable proof that the electricity would complete an electrical circuit through the lineman’s body, in spite of the supposed protection afforded by the bracket grounding.

“I said, ‘It lit!’ I was elated,” he says. “I went and had a cigarette.”

Working under Chief Safety Officer Dave Jackson in the early 1970s (a job in BPA’s Portland, Ore., headquarters that inspired him to wear a tie for one week), Haven was scheduled to train line crews in North Bend, Ore., near Coos Bay. Ordinarily, he would have drawn diagrams on the hood of a BPA standard-issue orange International Travelall.

Instead, the dirt box debuted to a very enthusiastic reception. Haven modified the setup to show a far safer practice called work-site grounding; the bulb stays off, proving the lineman is protected in the configuration.

When the demo was over, Portland Line Superintendent Don Ellsworth said, “Where’re you goin’?” and Haven replied, “Back to Portland. “He said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re taking that dirt box around and showing it to the other line crews.’”

First there were four crews. Then there were 12 more. And the rest is BPA history.

The dirt box has inspired similar models in use at other utilities around the country. Haven’s own design evolved after the box delivered a safety lesson having nothing to do with electrical grounding.

Well-known for his quality of preparation and unerring punctuality – “I’d rather be an hour early than five minutes late” – Haven was alone at Sickler Substation in Wenatchee, Wash., before a training, lugging the old 60-pound box through doors and up a twisting stairway when he lost his balance. The box’s weight flipped him over backward. He fell downstairs with the box exploding its load of dirt on top of him.

“After that,” he says, “I redesigned the box specifically to require two people to lift.”

Haven, who went on to serve as Seattle Area line superintendent from 1979 to 1990 before retiring as chief safety officer in 1994, is a lifter by nature. The stories of his uplift are legion.

“If it hadn’t been for Harvey Haven, I wouldn’t have had a career at Bonneville,” says retiree Charlie Pursiful, who was BPA’s only African-American lineman foreman III. Raised in Kentucky, Pursiful had been a temporary groundman when he ran up against a wall of seemingly insurmountable arithmetic during the lineman apprentice training at Seattle Community College in the early 1970s. He was afraid he would wash out of the program.

“I was caught in my last step,” he recalls. “Harvey knew I could do the work, that I could do the hands-on stuff. He knew I was doing everything in my power to get to that goal. But I was having trouble with my math and retaining things. He took me under his wing and worked with me on his own time. He’d set me down and go over things on the blackboard and explain it so I could understand it.

 

“And one day, after several hours, it just clicked. Harvey said, ‘Charlie Pursiful, you don’t need my help anymore.’ That’s the kind of a man he is. It means the world to me.” Haven salts his instruction with down-to-earth anecdotes – he’ll tell students how his border collie on their daily jaunt ran headlong into a familiar gate that had been unexpectedly closed by a visitor – helping to inject relevance into abstract concepts (i.e., never assume the equipment is in the same status as when you last saw it).

“He’s the smartest lineman I’ve ever known, and I’ve known hundreds,” says Darrel Underwood, Olympia District operations and maintenance manager. “Yet he doesn’t talk down at you. He expresses things simply, yet it’s profound.”

“He’s got an engineer’s mind in a lineman’s demeanor,” says Hansen, who was trained by Haven in the same apprentice class as Bea.

Bea describes Haven as “a salt of the earth kind of man.” “Harvey has the special ability to relate with anyone and everyone, from apprentice to vice president,” he says.

Forty years after he reached out to Pursiful, Haven’s unique, personal energy and impact are undiminished. “To stay that committed, that passionate, over that period of time is what makes Harvey so exceptional,” Bea says. “It’s the most important thing in the world to him that he passes on his knowledge and ensures that others go home safely to enjoy their families.”

In that ongoing effort, Haven fields problems, does research and shares custom solutions as naturally as others breathe. “He embodies safety and he lives it,” says BPA technical trainer Louis Wright. “ – Wholeheartedly!” adds training technician Monica Brindos.

Westling remembers one of Haven’s trademark habits of everyday excellence from his stint as Seattle line superintendent. Technical questions would arise when crews were out for beers after work. “You’d see him scribble notes on a little scrap of paper and he’d stuff it in his shirt pocket,” Westling says. “And by God, you’d get a phone call the next day or soon afterward with an answer.”

Nowadays Haven has three phone numbers and two email addresses so that anyone with a work-site question can reach him “anytime.” And he means anytime, knowing that work problems are debated into the wee hours with linemen on the road.

“Oh, yes,” he laughs. “I’ll answer the phone, and Johnny Cash is on the juke box in the background. I’ll hear glasses tinkling, and they’ll say, ‘We were just talking and there’s something we wanted to ask you…’ ”

And when he hangs up, it’s 3 a.m. Harvey Haven has fulfilled his mission once more: His people are safe.

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