Powering Strong Communities

Keeping Utility Culture on the Safe Side

A culture of safety seems like it should be inherent — after all, people generally want to avoid hurting themselves or others. But there is a growing recognition of the need to shift from a singular focus on individual actions, which can place blame for incidents solely on the worker, toward a more holistic organizational culture that makes an effort to recognize and build in a safety mindset at every level of the organization.

There has long been a host of standards, processes, and procedures that workers can follow — such as those identified in the American Public Power Association’s Safety Manual — but people are better protected when these rules and processes are paired with leadership commitment, risk awareness and communication.

Mixed Messages

In Danvers, Massachusetts, engineers and managers write work orders to keep power flowing to the public power utility’s 13,000 customers. These get passed down to workers who execute the orders in the field, explained Anthony Calascibetta, the town’s safety and risk manager. “When you have an overabundance of people writing work orders, sometimes field workers can’t keep up,” he said, adding that the push for productivity can make workers take shortcuts.

Miscommunication can be another source of unsafe practices, said Sara McCoy, director of safety and risk management at Salt River Project, a power and water provider to some 2 million customers in the Phoenix, Arizona area.

As a former power plant manager, she saw firsthand how innocent comments could be misinterpreted as an order to hurry. “When a plant goes down, we all want it back quickly, and everyone would agree that it’s important to do it safely,” she said. “But people don’t usually take the time to ask, ‘When will the plant be returned to service safely?’ They’ll say, ‘When’s the unit coming back?’”

Another source of risk is “when leaders feel like safety problems are out at the frontline-worker level,” said David Libby, managing director for Krause Bell Group, a business consulting firm that specializes in safety management. He explained that underlying this mistaken idea is a feeling that, “If we could just get frontline workers to stop making stupid decisions, we wouldn’t have injuries.”

An example Libby gives is of a line worker who decides to do a quick job without fall-arrest equipment. That worker is shrugging off the risk because he’s done it hundreds of times before, nothing bad happened, and when supervisors walked by, they never said anything, so it must be all right. “In this case, the culture had drifted toward a feeling that actions like that were OK to do until something bad happens, and then everyone wants to start pointing fingers at the worker,” Libby said. “Our consulting company’s experience is that decisions have been made sometimes years before, and those management or supervisor decisions created a climate where workers thought it was all right to make unsafe decisions every day.”

Cues from the Top

Utilities can spot — and change — when those unsafe decisions are being made, whether consciously or unconsciously. “If you have to prioritize the resources you’re putting toward safety improvements and you can only support one thing, instead of working on the facility, providing more equipment, or offering more training, the thing that will make the biggest difference in safety improvements is getting safety leaders to show up differently,” Libby said.

By “safety leaders,” Libby clarified that this means the executive team members and senior operational leaders. “They’re the ones that truly own safety,” he added.

“The way to make safety a priority is to have management buy into it,” echoed Calascibetta. “If management isn’t going to buy into it, employees won’t buy into it.”

McCoy has a similar view. “A strong safety culture sees everyone at every level participating,” she said. “Leaders need to get out into the field. … They need to walk around the office. They need to see employees where they are and the work these employees are doing. They also have to be available for employees to bring up safety concerns.”

Managers must lead by example, too. “If you’re having a safety meeting and some supervisor is busy on the phone, ignoring the speaker, or maybe not even in the room, how do you think the workers are going to feel?” Calascibetta asked. “If my manager isn’t paying attention and doesn’t care, then I don’t care, either.”

Ask the Right Questions

One step that should happen early in the safety improvement journey is risk assessment. Libby and his team teach companies to do this through “meaningful safety conversations” with workers at all levels. Those conversations start by asking the right questions, which boil down to:

  • What are the main risks you face? What could maim or kill you?
  • To what extent do we give you the right tools, policies and procedures to mitigate risk?
  • What, if anything, makes those tools, policies and procedures hard to use or follow?

SRP gathers information from workers using multiple approaches. “Meetings are one,” McCoy said. “Focus groups are another. And we’ll do pilots, rolling something out to a small group and asking for their feedback.”

McCoy’s team also communicates safety changes carefully. “With change, it’s all about ensuring that everybody knows the change is coming, how it will affect them, and why it’s important,” she said. “And it’s not just outgoing communication from the top down. You need to listen to people to understand their concerns so your communications can address them.”

Some utilities might not be able to gather this information if employees don’t feel comfortable speaking out. A first step might be for leaders to see if there is fear among workers of bringing issues to management.

“Look at what gets reported in your organization,” Libby said. “If the only things on your injury reports are things that couldn’t be hidden, like a broken bone that had to be treated by a doctor — if you’re not hearing about near misses and things that could be treated with simple first aid — there’s likely underreporting of events and a hesitancy to speak upward.”

“Back in the day, if you said, ‘I had a near miss,’ you’d be told, ‘Don’t tell management,’” Calascibetta said. “That was the old mentality. The new mentality is to bring it forward, find the root cause, and come up with corrective action.” Still, he added, telling workers it’s acceptable to bring issues up isn’t always enough to get them to actually do it.

To open up reticent employees, Libby recommends hiring outside help to run focus groups or having middle management reach out to the frontline workers. “That can make workers more willing to speak up,” he said.

In Danvers, management tries to encourage safety issue reporting through a small safety committee. “We have one person from line operations, one from substations, one from engineering, as well as the utility director and me,” Calascibetta said. If a worker has a safety issue, he or she can bring it to one of the committee members for consideration. “It gives people the opportunity to anonymously report an incident or issue,” he added.

Value in Listening

It’s important that workers speak up, but it’s also vital that their concerns are acknowledged. “One of the things that helps people feel comfortable speaking up is that when they do, it’s recognized,” McCoy said. “They are being listened to, and something is being done about their concerns. You can’t necessarily implement every idea, but you can let people know you considered it.”

Not listening can be costly. “When it’s obvious that you don’t follow through on what people are complaining about, your culture will quickly devolve into one where people just don’t care,” Libby said.

Even more important, taking steps to improve safety also improves organizational performance.

As McCoy pointed out, “Worker safety is more efficient in the long run, because if somebody gets injured, now you have a person not working.” Plus, the crew must stop its task to help the injured person.

But the impact of safety goes deeper than merely keeping people on the job, Libby said. “When employees see management not willing to address simple things, people get so downtrodden that they’re not going to give you anything other than what you’re paying them to do. That’s not what you want. You want their hearts and minds, not just their hands.”

According to Libby, when organizational leaders show a commitment to safety, they’re showing they care about the employees, which is a key to discretionary effort. “When people give discretionary effort, they’re giving you more than what you bought with your hourly rate or what it says in the job description. They’re going above and beyond to help you succeed.”

Libby also said high employee engagement and morale have a bonus for utilities that might be facing worker shortages. They help boost the productivity of people who are already on the job and may encourage employees to talk up the organization in the greater community.

“I have several utility clients, one with nearly a 40% turnover rate among frontline workers, like a journeymen lineman or groundman,” he said. “If you have people who feel so connected to the organization that they’re giving you discretionary effort, they’re going to be out recruiting for you,” Libby said.

To get that kind of loyalty, an organization must start with safety. “You can’t get people wanting to help with recruiting, productivity, quality or any other improvements without them feeling that you care about them,” Libby concluded.