Navigant Consulting protecting field workforce

Utilities Must Protect Their Field Workforce

Oct. 25, 2016
Because linemen, meter technicians and troublemen interface with the public, they need to learn how to stay safe in the field.

Linemen drive bucket trucks with their utility’s logo, wear company-issued workwear and interface with the public. As a result, they could face increased risks compared to other employees. 

Similar to other industries, a field employee working in the electric utility industry is seen as the most direct person who may be able to solve a customer’s problem, or at least serve as a personal sounding board for dissatisfied customers. For example, customers may become frustrated over failed phone communications or feel as if their needs were not met. These risks may be amplified when the utility initiates an alteration to the property such as trimming trees or changing a metering device. Risk may be highest during service disconnects, when customers may face their most desperate circumstances.

Recognizing Hazards

Field employees are constantly made aware of the inherent dangers, knowing that accessing a customer’s property may elicit a type of defensive response from the customer. Based on the customer’s state of mind, as well as other physical or ideological variables, such responses may be tense and uncertain for the employee.

The field workforce may or may not be made aware of their vulnerabilities and of their potential inability to adequately defend themselves from aggressors. Such vulnerabilities may be unintentionally increased by organizational policies governing employee conduct when in the field and while interfacing with customers. Most companies have zero tolerance policies against workplace violence, potentially placing employees in a legal gray area when it comes to self-defense. More specifically, policies generally prohibit employees from carrying tools of self-defense, such as pepper spray or firearms. 

Legal headaches may ensue with the need to obtain details of the incident, based on statements from both employee and customer. A major issue here is limited availability of law enforcement due to manpower shortages or geographical distance to the site. Furthermore, some policies allow employees to elect not to attend discussions or training on workplace violence because of personal sensitivity about the subject matter.  An unfortunate effect of such policies is that the overall safety structure of an organization may be compromised.

Utilities must focus on protecting their field employees and train them how to handle angry customers.

Training Field Workers

Currently, the training for field employees may not be sufficient. Over the past seven years, more training materials and strategies developed against workplace violence have been focused toward employees who work inside buildings. 

For many companies, workplace violence training is issued to all employees regardless of their position during the onboarding process; often, the training is conducted to satisfy a requirement by human resources. The training informs employees on steps and resources found inside of the building to ensure safety in case an attacker enters the workplace.

Unfortunately, this training does little to prepare field employees who may come into contact with an aggressor while working outside on power lines. More importantly, this lack of formalized training makes way for employees to give potentially unproven, and possibly dangerous, advice to each other on how to maintain personal safety in the field.

The risks to the safety of field employees relate to the demands of their jobs in the field, whether working in open areas or on private property, and in some cases discussing concerns with customers. A customer may quickly identify vulnerabilities of an employee such as stature, gender and perhaps protective capabilities. 

The catalyst for an event is when a customer perceives an opportunity to commit a crime they believe they’re likely to get away with. The types of crimes field employees may be prone to are impersonal crimes, common to cases where an individual doesn’t know his or her victim.  According to some reports from the field, male and female field employees have reported incidents of verbal threats, sexual harassment and being forced off of the road while driving. In more dynamic cases, employees reported having been approached by residents who carried weapons and threatened to inflict bodily harm. In another case, an employee was accused of being a police informant and was subsequently threatened. Finally, accounts exist of employees who were physically attacked, shot at and sexually assaulted while on service calls.

Such events, combined with the expectation that management will pursue legal action against the offender, increase anxiety throughout the business unit. Meanwhile, management must strive to maintain a balance between providing adequate support for the employees, navigating legal implications of the event and maintaining a positive image as a reliable community resource. In these cases, management also must be aware of their timeliness, as the appearance of indecisiveness may further increase tensions among staff. 

Arguably, criminal actions toward field employees can have a direct result on overall morale, which impacts job performance and personal life. Diminished morale may lead to work avoidance, denying the event occurred, self-blame, refusing to cooperate with management, passing work onto others, and may negatively impact employee retention.

Ramping Up Security

The current approach across the industry to protecting employees against criminal behavior has been for the most part reactive. Once an event occurs, management implements measures for employees to avoid the reoccurrence of an identical scenario. 

A benefit of reactive methods is it enables field employees to feel safe by avoiding certain areas. Unfortunately, the reactive approach is often drastic, overlooks relevant details and is rarely applied consistently. Additionally, the reactive approach  drives management to establish companywide policies based on a single experience that may impede efforts such as having an open dialogue with customers. 

Simply avoiding certain areas or discontinuing contact with customers and landowners may temporarily reduce the risk to employees. However, field employees will always need to access rights-of-way or private property to perform their duties properly. 

Site management establishes policies that do not always include input from security management whose priority is to secure assets that support reliability of services. With the current elevated threat levels, security and business continuity departments are in an “all hands on deck” mentality to prepare against coordinated attacks or systematic acts of sabotage.  This causes security management to divert attention from field operations, leaving these departments to develop their own of practices securing personnel. 

Unfortunately, the unintentional void of an active security team may contribute to barriers in communication, as well as to the perception that security management is not interested in supporting field employees. What might follow is a disruption in collaboration between security management and field employees, causing them to discount the need to report security- related events.

Field employees can be the most essential sources of information from outside the office walls; without them, security management may be uninformed about the status of assets, including emerging local threats and vulnerabilities. A single lapse in response by security management should not result in the immediate erosion of trust between security management and field employees. Security professionals must keep themselves aware of the circumstances and not allow any one incident to propagate into many.

Taking a Proactive Stance

As security strategies become more intricate, security management must find innovative ways to deal with evolving threats. A proactive approach is the most effective defensive strategy for field employees. 

This approach is centered on providing information and training to field employees on tools and practices to prepare them in identifying high-risk environments and to implement the best course of action. First, security management must establish and promote its security event reporting program throughout the organization. Second, security management should also make itself aware of available crime statistics depicting violent crimes and property crimes, as collected by law enforcement from the communities their organizations serve. These two components should alert security management of areas of high risk within which field employees must work.

An often overlooked element in working proactively toward deterring crime relies on security management’s ability to combine the two distinct subject matters of criminology and engineering. The application of criminological theories can help to explain how an environment within the service area fosters growth in criminal activity, whereas the application in knowledge of engineering allows security managers to identify potential risk to assets becoming targets, by criminals stealing copper or someone deliberately attacking the power grid. Security managers must be able to operationalize and communicate to all employees these threats and forecast future threats against the power systems and against employees based on expertise in these two distinct fields. 

Deterring Workplace Violence

A common hurdle organizations encounter is defining a reportable security event. Most employees are unaware of how to objectively and rationally interpret a situation as threatening. The most dangerous mindset employees can have is to attempt to rationalize or see dangerous situations as normal or with a “that’s just the way that person is” mentality.  Security management and the legal department must work together to develop definable parameters that field employees can interpret and use to make sound judgments around high-risk areas. 

Establishing such parameters may foster conversation among coworkers, enhancing situational awareness and possibly preventing workplace violence. It is also important to differentiate between criminal and non-criminal activity. For example, the most frequent occurrences may be when a field employee encounters a customer who becomes verbally abusive. In some cases, customers are exercising their right to free speech, and expressing their frustrations is not a crime, in other cases, the situation may escalate to violence.

Solutions to violence against field employees are dynamic and not absolute; field employees who work to ensure reliable services may always be vulnerable to threat or harm. Corporate security must take on the issue of violence against field employees together with site management. They must develop innovative tools for field employees to avoid becoming victims.

Tools such as duress programs, crime-mapping software and in-depth situational awareness training are effective strategies for empowering field employees to detect and to avoid danger with confidence. According to resource availability, organizations should work to address and support employee anxiety, trauma and morale related to coping with situations of violence. For example, they can allow mental health professionals to reach out to field employees to debrief employees periodically or after an incident. This would enhance the current practices of the Employee Assistance Program, which expects employees to initiate a dialogue; whereas, most victims of crimes may be reluctant to come forth and speak openly.   

To protect field employees from workplace violence, a concentrated effort from the entire utility is required. Security management should lead the dialogue promoting personal safety, challenging fellow managers to ensure their employees remain communicative about the dangers they face. These efforts alone will forge a culture of security and create a safe workplace for all.

Cory Lasseigne is a subject matter expert for Navigant Consulting’s physical security and emergency management.

Signs of Aggressive Behavior

  • Loud speech
  • Clenched fist
  • Furrowed brow    
  • Appearing intoxicated
  • Swearing   
  • Prolonged eye contact
  • Aggressive pressure    
  • Invasion of personal space

Improve Situational Awareness and Stay Alert

  • Avoid distraction by non-threatening or non-hazardous events
  • Recognize signs of criminal activity in your work area
  • Know your location and develop an escape plan
  • Trust your own perceptions of danger
  • Avoid complacency
  • Avoid rushing through tasks
  • Observe hands

Provided by: Navigant Consulting Risk Management Team

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!