Safety in generation: Prioritizing people over power

Working with power-producing equipment — whether coal, natural gas, hydro, nuclear, wind, or solar — leaves no room for error, as even a small mistake can lead to injury or death.

People who work at power generation facilities must be constantly mindful of their surroundings to avoid injury. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the most common hazards faced by electric industry workers include electrocution, falls, fires and explosions, environmental stress, confined spaces, sprains, strains, and fractures.

Safety has long been a top priority for public power utilities. While the American Public Power Association’s Safety Manual is updated every five years, OSHA standards for work on electric power generation are not frequently updated. When OSHA instituted a new final rule in 2014 (29 CFR 1910.269 and 29 CFR Part 1926, Subpart V, including standards for electric power generation, that had been the first time in 40 years the agency issued rules for the field.

The final rule made safety for employees more consistent with standards in similar industries and included provisions for employees to share safety-related information, according to OSHA. It enhanced fall protection for employees working at heights and revised approach-distance requirements, so employees don’t work too close to energized lines and equipment. It improved out-of-date safety requirements, ensuring that all equipment had methods to protect employees from electrocutions and providing guidance for the safe use and care of electrical protective equipment.

Many public power providers already had safety standards in place to address these issues. For those that didn’t, OSHA set the tone for higher safety standards.

Here’s how public power providers ensure employees go home safely at the end of the shift.

Instilling safety from day one

Operating safely isn’t just about having the standards, but how leadership and employees alike apply and embody a culture of safety. Leadership at power generation facilities must make sure employees are properly trained for and comfortable with the necessary safety gear and strategies.

American Municipal Power Inc. — a joint action agency providing wholesale power and services for 135 utilities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Indiana, Maryland, and Delaware — starts sending the safety message to all new hires from the first day.

Employees typically spend their first day with human resources, getting the lay of the land and completing the necessary paperwork. For generation employees, the second and third days are spent with AMP’s Manager of Corporate Health and Safety Lee Doyle, who leads new hires through a 10-hour OSHA class and talks about the importance of safety at all generation facilities.

The focus on safety doesn’t stop with the onboarding process. Employees also participate in safety training throughout the year; some of the topics covered are required and others are suggested by team members.

Every Monday, leaders of all AMP generation facilities — including four hydroelectric plants and four gas turbine sites — as well as the corporate office participate in a call that begins and ends with a safety update. Doyle visits and communicates with each site regularly to ensure there are no unaddressed safety issues. “It makes my job easier that our generation operations management and team take ownership of safety and quickly address issues,” he said.

AMP focuses so strongly on safety because the risks are all too real. Employees working at hydroelectric or gas turbine sites are regularly working from heights, in confined spaces, and on equipment that runs the risk of arc flashes — all top OSHA concerns. A hazard analysis is completed at each site to identify risks and determine ways to mitigate them.

“Hazard analyses help us determine how to protect employees in all situations with the right [personal protective equipment], arc flash protection, or even sometimes something as simple as hearing protection,” Doyle said.

Part of every conversation

The New York Power Authority takes a similar approach, instilling the importance of safety during orientation on the first day. Employees are encouraged to direct questions to their peers and leaders.

With 16 generating facilities, most of which are hydro, NYPA makes a significant effort to ensure that safety is always part of the conversation. If there’s a meeting where three or more people are involved, safety is a talking point. Every meeting begins with a safety message. The effort began with the utility operations department and is spreading to other support departments across the organization.

“By making safety part of every conversation, it stays in your mind,” said Kedaar Raman, manager of NYPA’s Digital Utility Worker program. “As employees go through activities, they carry that message with them.”

Ultimately, the message we send is we expect to provide a safe work environment, and we expect them to carry a safety mindset all the time,” Raman said. “We want them to be safe, no matter what — even when going home and weed-whacking.”

Safety is also at the center of conversation at Grand River Dam Authority, which has a large portion of its 500 employees working in its Grand River Energy Center that includes a coal-burning unit and a combined cycle gas unit, as well as its three hydro facilities — two dams and a pumped storage facility — in Oklahoma.

No matter what type of generating facility it is, the message is the same. GRDA’s safety team is embedded across all of its generation assets — ensuring the messaging is consistent in the organization as a whole, and not just at one site or another.

“We want our employees going home to their families safe and sound at the end of the shift,” said GRDA’s Safety Director Mike Vernnon. “Whether they are working at a hydro facility, maintaining a power line, or operating a thermal-generation plant, we emphasize the safety measures and the culture not only for that specific location, but for the broader GRDA mission.”

Safety meetings are incorporated in all phases of the work schedule. Safety tailboard meetings occur at every location; toolbox safety talks happen at the beginning of every work week and often before each shift.

“Considering the equipment they are working on and the environment they are working in, we want employees always to be mindful of what they are doing and the safe way to do it; that’s core to everything at GRDA,” said Justin Alberty, vice president of corporate communications at GRDA. “When we’re able to work safely, it aids productivity and efficiency — all factors that are hallmarks of what public power is about.”

GRDA provides site-specific job and safety training in its generation facilities to help employees understand the potential risks and to develop work plans to mitigate those risks.

“Our team members understand the risks that are associated with installing high-voltage transmission lines and getting equipment energized,” Vernnon said. “Our team is experienced and well-trained and, because of the exposure to these areas of electric generation and transmission, they maintain careful practices and procedures.”

Learning from experiences

A culture of safety is not possible without a full commitment by leadership. “It starts at the top with the board of trustees and executive management team buying in, as well as the leadership at each generation site,” said AMP’s Doyle. “Safety is who we are and what we do; it’s not something we just talk about.”

AMP’s efforts have paid off. The organization has had no recordables or injuries since its generation facilities have become operational.

The American Public Power Association’s Safety Award of Excellence recognizes utilities with low recordable injury and illness incidence rates for all staff on a yearly basis. AMP has been recognized with the award four times in the last five years. When it earns the recognition, AMP’s safety team makes a home-cooked breakfast for all employees to thank them for working safely throughout the year.

At NYPA, leadership feels a sense of personal responsibility for ensuring the safety of employees and makes an effort to always model safety. For example, if a supervisor is speaking with employees about the importance of safety gear, he or she is dressed in the appropriate personal protective equipment.

NYPA also holds regular safety tailgates. If a worker is about to work on a lift, management holds a tailgate about the importance of employees being aware of their surroundings. Management makes sure all employees are comfortable completing the task and are current with training.

Employees are also encouraged to share safety experiences. If an incident occurs, NYPA wants people to describe exactly what happened so they can understand the situation, learn from it, put measures in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and move forward. 

In addition, NYPA holds safety barbecues, which often include guest speakers to share stories about safety, at all generation facilities.

“Speakers may have been hurt on the job and help spread the message of safety,” Raman said. “For example, there was a man who came from an industrial plant in the Midwest who had done something unsafe and got hurt. When you see him deliver that message, it stays with you.”

NYPA’s commitment to safety is just one reason it was the first electric utility in North America to achieve International Organization for Standardization 55001: 2014, a certification awarded for meeting rigorous asset management standards. ISO 55001: 2014 recognizes organizations with top asset management techniques that allow them to achieve operational and financial goals, including reducing the cost of capital and operations in addition to improving risk management and environmental compliance. That includes maintaining good housekeeping in the shop and working areas and keeping equipment in top shape — all efforts to maintain a safe work environment. 

“The main theme is continual improvement,” Raman said. “We look at what we have and determine what we can do better.”

The leadership team at GRDA made focusing on safety a priority. Leaders hold safety talks, training and meetings with employees to drive home the importance of working safely.

Keeping safety at the forefront of every daily task is the priority,” said Alberty. “GRDA is making the investment in our workforce to make sure employees have not only the resources, but also the training they need to get the job done. That positively impacts the organization in a number of ways.”

Using technology

NYPA also is determining how technology can aid in increasing safety. It recently held its first virtual reality training for aerial lifts. Virtual reality allows NYPA to conduct safety training for all models of aerial lift equipment by simply typing in the model number, allowing employees to practice using the equipment in a virtual environment before operating it in the field. 

“Virtual reality is very effective and a safety advantage for us,” Raman said. “Employees can be on the ground but experience the task at height; it’s a huge bonus to be able to tap into.”

NYPA is also working on improving connectivity at its facilities. It recently began a project to ensure access to Wi-Fi and cell service at key locations. If there’s ever a safety issue, employees will be able to report it and ask for help immediately.

With a combination of technology, leadership support, and a strong culture of safety, these utilities — and many more like them — show a commitment to their employees and to delivering power to their customers safely and efficiently.