Public Power Magazine

Promising Safety

From the September 2013 issue (Vol. 71, No. 6) of Public Power

Originally published July 30, 2013

By William Atkinson
July 30, 2013
Salt River Project
Corey Duncan, SRP Lineman; Roland Nixon, SRP Working Foreman; and Tony Esqueda, SRP Section Line Supervisor, are committed to safety. Photos courtesy of Michael McNamara, Salt River Project.

The key to a successful safety culture can be distilled down to one word—commitment. And that commitment can be delineated in three phases. The first is commitment to safety from the senior level executives in the organization. The second is an individual and personal commitment to safety by every employee in the organization. The third is a commitment by the organization as a whole to continue to improve safety performance, regardless of how good it already is. Here, we look at three public power utilities and one power plant that exemplify safety at its best and emphasize the three commitments.

Fayetteville Public Works Commission in North Carolina has been involved in its commitments for as long as anyone can remember. Salt River Project in Phoenix once had one of the worst safety records in the industry, but made its three commitments a quarter century ago. Orrville, Ohio, launched its commitments to safety 15 years ago. Prairie State Energy Campus has existed for just a few years and has had its commitments to safety in place from the beginning.

For Fayetteville Public Works Commission, regular accident reviews are one of the keys to the utility’s remarkable safety record. The reviews allow the utility to identify any evolving trends that need to be addressed. When trends are identified, the utility develops a plan for addressing them. Fayetteville PWC recently achieved 2 million worker-hours without a lost-time accident. The utility was the first place winner of the American Public Power Association Safety Award for 2012 in the 250,000 to 999,999 worker hours of exposure category, with 0.63 incidence rate for 637,231 hours worked.

The utility has won an APPA Safety Award every year for the last 25 years, said CEO and General Manager Steven K. Blanchard. "Our philosophy is 'safety first in everything we do,'" he said. "For example, safety is part of everyone's performance review, including supervisors and managers." 

When the utility hires, it looks for applicants with a safety commitment. "For example, we check their driving records to make sure they're not prone to accidents," he said. Also, when the utility is looking for people for jobs that are somewhat labor-intensive, it arranges for a company to come in and do physicals to make sure that the applicants being considered are healthy, such as not having any back injuries or other previous serious injuries.

"Another key to success is that we don't focus on the negative side of safety, looking just at all of the problem areas," said Blanchard. "While we certainly conduct safety inspections and meetings, and identify areas that need to improve, we focus on the positive. For example, if there are 100 safety items on a list, we will look at the two where we need to improve, but we will also pay attention to the 98 that we are doing well." The utility encourages supervisors to provide commendations to people who are doing their jobs properly. "When we do safety inspections, we ask the people to write safety commendations for individuals as well as crews," he said. Employees can earn points for safe work practices and for leading safety meetings during the year. They can redeem the points for various prizes. In addition, departments and the whole division can earn points, he said

"We also try to look at safety with objective sets of eyes," he said. "For example, the representative on the safety committee from our finance department might end up doing a safety inspection at the water plant or generation plant."

Salt River Project was the first place winner of the 2012 APPA Safety Award in the 4,000,000+ worker hours of exposure category, with a 1.02 incidence rate for 11.6 million hours worked. This award was SRP's third first-place ranking in the last four year

"In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s SRP had one of the worst safety records of any utility in the U.S.," said Don Breiland, director of risk management. Breiland was manager of safety services at SRP for 13 years, then went over to power generation for eight years, and has been director of risk management for the last two years.

At the time, the utility was averaging about 1.4 fatalities per year. However, when a new CEO, Jack Pfister, arrived in the mid-1970s, he decided things needed to change. "As a result, we changed our entire culture," said Breiland. "He professionalized the safety department and gave it a bigger budget. However, he also shifted the concept that the safety department was responsible for safety to making management responsible for safety, with the safety department becoming more of a partner with management and providing consulting services and other assistance."

Since that time, safety has been at the core of what SRP does. Before the utility hires contractors, it pre-qualifies all of them based partly on their past safety performance. In spite of the high commitment to safety that SRP makes sure its contractors bring to the job, when the contractors come on site for orientations, many of them report that they hear more about safety from SRP in two hours than they have heard in their own companies in 20 years.

As a result of SRP's commitment to safety over the past 30 plus years, safety performance improved steadily. However, it plateaued in the last six to eight years. "We realized we had good performance, but we wanted even better performance," Breiland said.

To achieve this, SRP has worked with a consultant on a new initiative called Commitment-Based Safety. "We are putting every employee at SRP through a three-hour training class, and every supervisor through a four-hour training class," he said. With the new initiative, every employee of SRP makes three personal safety commitments and shares these every day with his or her "safety buddy," either at tailgate meetings, through emails, or via other means of communication. They also share their assessments of how they are doing related to their commitments.


SRP Safety Commitments
Kevin Cunningham

Among my commitments is to “let the Wookie win,” which means backing off when overaggressive drivers challenge for the right-of-way and force their way into traffic situations. The term comes from Star Wars movies and is a favorite of Bob Veazie, the Commitment-Based Safety trainer. Wookie drivers tend to bring out the worst in us, so it’s best leave them be and not engage their dangerous tactics. Another focus for me is to not drive distracted. That means concentrating entirely on traffic when behind the wheel and not paying attention to the radio or my phone when it rings.

Kevin Cunningham, section supervisor, water construction

Teresa Patrick

Part of Commitment-Based Safety is having a “buddy” you can talk to about practicing your commitments. My buddy is Paul Manganaro, who heads up Safety Services. Among his commitments is the Circle of Safety, which he said he did 100% of the time. As I was leaving one afternoon, I saw him walking to his car, so I decided to “spy” on him.  Sure enough, he walked completely around his vehicle, checking all corner areas before he got in. He laughed when I told him what I did, but it shows how the buddy system can reinforce our safety behaviors.

Teresa Patrick, administrative assistant, risk management

Roger Clay

My main commitment is to improve my posture. Sounds simple, but I have a bad back and also have a chronic habit of slouching in my chair during the day. So far, I’m doing well; I have a better chair and have made some ergonomic adjustments. I also have a note pasted to the corner of my PC screen to prompt me to sit up straight.  And my partner, Cindy Campbell in Safety Services, will send me periodic instant messages and will call to remind me to sit up and not to slouch.

Roger Clay, investigator 2, security services/operations

Employees select their own commitments. However, each supervisor comes up with a list of about a dozen possible options. Employees can select from those, or they can create their own. "However, we do want them to have at least one commitment that relates to driving," said Breiland.

SRP also requires that leaders have at least one leadership commitment to safety. Bret Marchese, manager of transmission and distribution line maintenance at SRP, is commited to eliniminate distracted driving. “No cell phone use, staying focused on the task at hand,” he said. “The [Commitment-Based Safety] initiative has challenged us to move from a really good safety culture to great.”

One of Breiland's safety commitments is also not to talk on his cell phone while driving, and one of his leadership-based commitments is to get out once a week with another member of his department to do a field visit or walk-around in an office.

"The initiative works well, because the commitments are personal," he said. "These are things that mean something to each employee—things they want to get better at, and things they have control over."

Roland Nixon, Corey Duncan and Tony Esqueda have worked with SRP for more than a decade. Safety has always been a main focus in linework, the three agreed.

“If you have an accident doing what we do, sometimes you don’t make it out alive,” Nixon, a line foreman, said. “We have rules but that doesn’t mean we can’t go beyond that to keep things as safe as we can throughout SRP. And SRP has a pretty good safety culture.”

With the Commitment-Based Safety initiative, Nixon, Duncan and Esqueda said they have seen the safety culture they experience start to permeate the entire organization.

“With our job, with the kind of work that we do, safety is something we’ve always had instilled in us coming up through the trade and passing along to others,” Duncan, a lineman, said. “But I think it’s beneficial for everyone to focus on it. Even though they might not have a hazardous situation at the workplace, that’s something they can put in their mind and take home to their families and everyday lives.”

The city of Orrville, Ohio, tied for first place in the 2012 APPA Safety Contest in the 110,000-249,999 worker hours of exposure category, with a zero incidence rate for 146,000 hours worked. The city's commitment to safety goes back about 15 years when it decided to hire a full-time safety coordinator, Ron Ballentine, for all of the departments in the city, including the electric utility. "We saw where the regulations and insurance premiums were headed and realized that we didn't want that level of potential exposure to risk," said Director of Utilities Jeff Brediger.

In addition, a couple of years prior to that, the utility had a serious disabling injury in its generation plant. "When the insurance people came in and started investigating, one of the things they asked the other employees was how that injury could have been prevented," said Brediger. Most of the employees told the investigators that the accident could not have been prevented; they had been doing that job exact same way as injured employee for years, Brediger recalled. "When we put the whole incident into perspective, we realized that, in a lot of ways, we had just been really lucky over the years, but that wasn't going to be acceptable going forward.”

The city started using the APPA Safety Manual and enrolled in safety training programs offered by its joint action agency, American Municipal Power. When the city's insurance representatives and others visited to assess the safety program, the city was very happy to hear that, for the most part, its safety practices were good. "However, they did point out some areas where we needed to improve," said Brediger. One was lockout-tagout at the power generation station. "Again, we hadn't had any problems in this area in the past," he said. "One reason was because we had so many long-time employees working for us. When some of them started to retire, we realized that we didn't have any formal safety procedures in place for things like lockout-tagout."

At first, said Brediger, a few employees felt uncomfortable with the safety program, and some did not see the need for it. "They said that we didn't have a lot of serious problems, so why make a special effort?" he said. These days, though, they all understand the benefits and realize that it helps them do their jobs better. In the past, a lot of employees assumed that accidents, injuries and near misses were just part of the job. Now they realize that they can take time in advance to analyze their worksites and jobs, take pre-emptive measures, and that doing so doesn't take a lot of time.

Over time, department superintendents have seen the positive results of the program. Lower insurance premiums improve the utility’s bottom line. Now, supervisers take more responsibility for safety, thus developing a culture of safety.

"These days, safety procedures really are second nature to everyone," said Brediger. "For example, if a couple of employees are getting into a truck to drive even just a couple of blocks, they automatically put on their seatbelts."

In addition, the attitude among the employees toward winning the APPA Safety Award isn't, "Well it may happen this year, or it may not." Their attitude is, "We want to win this."

"In 2012, our entire city went accident-free, and this is the first time that has ever happened in all of the years we have been collecting data," he said.

Located in Marissa, Ill., in southwestern Illinois, Prairie State Energy Campus (PSEC) is a state-of-the-art complex that includes a two-unit 1,600-MW coal-fired generating plant and adjacent coal mine. It is the largest coal-fired power plant to be built in the United States since 1982. PSEC is operated by Prairie State Generating Company, LLC.

PSEC is 95 percent-owned by eight consumer-owned utilities (six public power utilities and two rural electric cooperatives) that serve customers in eight states—Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Ninety-five percent of the plant’s output is dedicated to these utilities,.

PSEC employs 562 permanent, full-time employees, about 360 at the mine, 155 at the power plant, and 40 in corporate and construction management.

President and CEO Peter DeQuattro is proud of PSEC's safety record. "We have been able to construct and operate the campus with industry-leading safety statistics," he said. "Our lost workday injury frequency is about one-twentieth of the industry average and the recordable injury frequency is less than one-half of the industry average."

Philosophically, managers at PSEC believes they should be able to operate the whole campus without anyone getting hurt including employees, contractors and visitors. "Our goal is to operate the mine and the plant with zero injuries," he said.

DeQuattro challenges others to consider: "If you believe that having one or two recordable or reportable injuries a year is okay, do you have any volunteers?"

PSEC's commitment to safety starts with hiring the right people. Applicants are asked about their safety vision and what they consider to be acceptable safety performance. Zero accidents and injuries is the right answer, according to DeQuattro. "We also look for people who have a take-charge mentality—the ability to manage their own safety. We don't want people with the victim mentality, who believe that accidents just happen on their own." PSEC also looks for applicants who are comfortable in a standardized work environment, where there are standard procedures for every task.

PSEC sets values and acceptable behaviors for everyone who works at the plant. The company makes employees responsible for safety. "We have embraced the concept of 'human performance error prevention,'" he said. "We have a 'human performance toolbox,' which has certain tools and concepts designed to reinforce safety behavior. It makes people aware of the safety issues they may encounter and how to appropriately prevent problems." Furthering the commitment to employee responsibility for safety is that tailgate meetings are often led by the employees themselves. In order to get ready for these, of course, the employees have to do some background thinking and research to prepare their presentations.

PSEC also rewards appropriate behaviors. "Working safely is expected to be part of the job, but we also reward employees for doing so through incentives," said DeQuattro. "We reward not only for lagging indicators, such as no accidents and injuries, but also for leading indicators, which involve exhibiting safe work behaviors." Employees are expected to observe the behaviors of their colleagues and team members, and not only point out opportunities for improvement, but also point out safe activities.

"We have worked a total of about 25 million [worker] hours here, including the construction of the mine and the plants," he said. "Our safety performance shows that it is safer to work here than it is in the leisure and hospitality industry." PSEC's lost workday injury frequency since construction, which also includes work at the mine, is under 0.2. Its total recordable injury rate is under 2.0.


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