It's no secret utility workers are exposed to risks on a routine basis. From trips and falls to burns and electrocutions, one of the top responsibilities of a utility is to keep its employees safe every single day.
To help mitigate risks on the job, the American Public Power Association releases an updated safety manual every four years. The manual is used by more than 1,000 public power utilities, according to Michael Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services at the Association, where they're preparing to release the 16th edition in early 2017.
Even so, a clear understanding of the safety manual isn't enough. Utilities that are successful in keeping employees safe on the job work hard to create a culture of safety. They put safety at the center of all tasks on every job site.
To do so, communication is vital. Leadership must clearly communicate to employees, and employees must feel comfortable communicating with leadership. And that leadership must be on board. Simply having the CEO regularly sit in on safety meetings shows employees that safety is a top priority.
But safety measures are not just on the front end. Following up on near miss reports or any question about safety from an employee is extremely important. Taking steps to mitigate a problem or explaining the reasoning behind a safety regulation can show that a utility cares about its workforce and is committed to safety.
The ways in which utilities develop these qualities can vary. Some utilities hire an in-house safety expert to help develop a safety culture. Others partner with third-party experts who come in to conduct training and job site audits. Both techniques can help develop a culture of safety.
Partnering for Safety
Electric Cities of Georgia works with 67 city utilities in Georgia and Florida to provide training and safety expertise. Jon Beasley, director of training and safety for ECG, recommends utilities work with a third party to get a broader perspective on safety.
"If you don't have an outside person come in, habits often get repeated in a utility, and they don't recognize a habit as bad until something bad happens," Beasley said.
ECG combines training and updates for a holistic approach to safety. It conducts groundsman, apprentice and advanced lineman training, while keeping employees up to date on new safety rules and regulations.
"Some companies keep it separated: Instructors are either in the safety department or in the training department," Beasley said. "Sometimes the training instructors don't stay up to date with safety regulations, and they barely communicate with each other. Keeping them together ensures everyone is aware of safety regulations."
The Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association represents the interests of municipal electric, gas and water utilities in Minnesota and works hard to help electric utilities develop a culture of safety.
To help, it created a safety group consortium. Safety professionals in the consortium are dedicated to working with about six utilities. "Even though we may visit each utility only a few times a month, the utilities have someone they can call anytime," said Michael Willetts, director of training and safety for MMUA.
MMUA employees in the consortium do safety training and aim to make safety regulations easy to understand and apply in the field. "Rules and regulations can be so complicated, so we try to take the complication out of it," Willetts said. "We articulate the regulations to employees, but they don't want to hear about it; they just want to know how they can do their job safely."
Developing a safety manual and educating employees about the rules and regulations is just step one. Step two is making sure employees apply what they learn to the job site. Beasley recommends utilities conduct safety audits routinely.
"Many utilities find it uncomfortable to go check on crews and write them up if they see something wrong. Not many utilities do it, so it's a huge missing component," he said. "They spend money on a safety manual but don't do anything to make sure employees follow the manual."
ECG also coaches utilities to create an accident investigation program, which can help determine the root causes of safety incidents. In addition, it encourages utilities to conduct job briefings each day to make employees alert about hazards specific to each job.
Keeping Safety In-House
When Kati Griffin was hired as a safety and training specialist for City of Independence Power and Light in Independence, Minnesota, she had to create a safety program from the ground up. She created the Nest, a safety training program that all new and current employees must attend. The Nest is a hybrid of concepts learned during her 13 years of experience with safety orientations and industry best practices.
One of the top challenges was getting all employees on board with the new program — a concept she will be talking about during the American Public Power Association's Engineering and Operations Technical Conference in May. Many City of Independence Power and Light employees have decades of experience in the industry, and Griffin said she had to determine ways to best reach them.
"At first, I just gave them tasks to do, but I didn't give them the concept of why, and I was talking too quickly," she said. "I realized it wasn't their fault I wasn't getting through. I had to determine what I needed to change to give them what they needed to learn the material."
As part of the Nest, employees are immersed in safety. The utility conducts instructor-led safety meetings each month, as well as weekly meetings for all employees. Employees also go through regulatory training online, which frees up their in-person meeting time. "At first, they will grumble. But at least they are talking about safety, and it's in the front of their minds," Griffin said.
Each year, she picks a topic of focus for every meeting. In 2016, the topic was mindfulness, and she encouraged employees to focus on the present, instead of thinking about their next job or what happened on their way to work. Her goal was to decrease safety issues by encouraging employees to be mindful of present tasks.
Her efforts have paid off. "I have seen employees take more ownership for themselves," Griffin said. "It's a tight-knit group here, and they hold each other accountable. It's like family."
Leadership Drives Safety
Safety at CPS Energy in San Antonio is driven by the utility's leadership, which has resulted in safety being deeply engrained in the company's culture.
"I report directly to our CEO, so safety has top visibility in our company. As a consequence, safety gets consideration among all top values," said Fred Bonewell, chief safety and security officer for CPS Energy. "It's vital that all employees see this concept, because it solidifies any doubt as to where we stand on safety."
If work can't be completed safely, the utility's safety policy mandates that the work will not continue. In addition, the utility's safety department presents a progress report to its board of trustees every three months. And all job site leaders, such as front-line supervisors and foremen, start every meeting with a safety message.
Leaders in the field are responsible for modeling appropriate safety behavior, ensuring all employees receive 40 hours of safety training and conducting the required number of behavioral observations.
"Simply relying on a safety manual leaves compliance to a book-only approach with no training or established work procedures on how to integrate the rules in the safety manual into daily work," Bonewell said.
By making safety part of the company culture, utilities can create a better work environment and ensure all employees make it home safely at the end of each day.
Behind the Scenes: Creating the American Public Power Association's Safety Manual
Many utilities rely on the American Public Power Association's safety manual to provide a safe work environment, so keeping an updated manual with current regulations and best practices is extremely important.
However, updating the manual is no small feat. The Association created the SMRT Force, which stands for the Safety Manual Revision Task Force. The task force consists of 12 people representing various regions of the country.
Chairman, Michael Willetts, Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, Minn.
Vice Chairman, Jon Beasley, Electric Cities of Georgia, Ga.
Thomas Bruhl, City of St. Charles, Ill.
Michael Byrd, ElectriCities of North Carolina, Inc., N.C.
Jim Coleman, Santee Cooper, S.C.
Will Crow, City of Winfield, Kan.
Keith Cutshall, Clarksville Department of Electricity, Tenn.
Scott McKenzie, American Municipal Power Inc., Ohio
Craig Peay, Bowling Green Municipal Utilities, Ken.
Robert Scudder, Grand River Dam Authority, Okla.
Kevin Sullivan, Wellesley Municipal Light Plant, Mass.
John Van Gundy, City of Mesa, Ariz.
To determine what changes will be made to each edition, the SMRT Force puts out a call for change proposals. Anyone in the industry, from American Public Power Association staff to journeyman lineworkers, can submit a proposal. Next, the SMRT Force holds a series of meetings to review every proposal. Each proposal is:
- Approved as received
- Accepted on principle, but with some edits
- Rejected with stated reasons, OR
- Tabled for further discussion or consideration
The SMRT Force responds to every proposal, regardless of whether it is included in the final manual.