Safety: the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss – Merriam Webster
Risk: possibility of loss or injury – Merriam Webster
I’ve been thinking about this concept of safety versus risk since the COVID-19 pandemic started – my husband might say obsessively so. And this past week, as voices rise up in our country against racism, injustice and violence, a new layer has been added to my rumination.
As the CEO of a trade association representing electric utilities, our members are constantly managing risk in their daily operations, much less during a pandemic or natural disaster. Management of electricity is risky by its nature – as we all learn from an early age, getting too close to live electricity can maim or kill. The lineworkers who maintain and repair the poles and wires know this all too well.
Because of this inherent risk, public power utilities (and the entire sector), adhere closely to the National Electrical Safety Code, the APPA Safety Manual, and rules set forth by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to prevent accidents. They also go above and beyond those standards by creating and reinforcing a culture of safety at their utilities. At APPA, we hold a Lineworkers Rodeo every year (well, except this year — it had to be canceled because of COVID-19). This is an opportunity to emphasize safety in a competitive environment, as well as to test apprentice lineworkers on important concepts. Competitors at the rodeo are scored based on their adherence to the safe working practices found in the APPA Safety Manual, which is our most popular publication.
And recently, we added another tool to our toolbox to help electric utilities prevent incidents and improve safety. Just last week, we launched the eSafety Tracker — an online platform allowing utilities to report safety information and cross-compare them to others using the tracker. This is not only open to public power utilities, but to every utility. This offering (as well as the eReliability Tracker) is the brainchild of APPA’s Alex Hofmann and his engineering and operations team.
While working around electricity will continue to have inherent risks, we can improve our mitigation of those risks through a continuous loop of learning, analysis and feedback. As I think about how utilities do this in an inherently risky environment, I am applying that thinking to the APPA office space as we reenter it even as COVID-19 infections still occur. We will be deploying greater cleaning strategies, social distancing, and other established protocols to improve safety. We are also working as individuals to ensure we practice responsible hygiene, stay home when we feel sick, and adhere to the office procedures. This “compact” between individuals and organizations — whether written or unwritten — underpins the safety culture so important to utility personnel and operations. And while it does not eliminate the risk entirely — an impossible task — it does significantly mitigate such risk and clearly defines the expectations in the workplace.
In addition to thinking about risk and safety in terms of COVID-19 response, the events of the past week and a half have led me to think more about it in terms of racism and our society. Law enforcement, systemically, is intended to promote safety and mitigate risks – of violence like rape, murder, and assault as well as of economic loss like theft, arson, and the like. When the system intended to promote safety instead increases risk to a certain segment of our society — African Americans — something is terribly wrong and must change. Both the law enforcement system itself and individuals working in the system must change the culture and maintain that change over time. In circumstances where individuals can have power over other individuals — like is the case with arresting officers — it is even more important that the systemic culture resists the inclination for power to corrupt. It strikes me that — as a starting point — we need to reestablish the compact between law enforcement entities, individual law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. This renewed compact needs to be revisited often and revised as issues arise.
The crucial issue is rectifying this perversion of safety — created by racism and hatred — and taking steps toward a new culture of accountability and communication. This is no simple feat, and it’s bigger than APPA or public power. It’s about our fundamental rights as Americans and human beings. Every American has a role to play in moving our national culture in a more positive direction. That being said, I’m ready to take the steps we need to take at APPA to eradicate systemic racism that may not be apparent in our own culture, and I look forward to seeing what steps our law enforcement community takes to get back to its goal of promoting safety for all races, creeds and genders, not just a select few.