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Safety Spotlight: We’re In It Together

June 8, 2020
Five utility leaders discuss how they approach safety in their organization and what they forecast for the future of the industry.

Safety is one of the most important topics in our industry, but it’s important to understand that it’s more than just a topic. Safety is the foundation of everything we do and why we do it. For our organization, safety is key to serving our utility customers. Without a defined philosophy that’s deeply ingrained in every employee, we wouldn’t be able to achieve the results that utilities have come to expect and benefit from us. In turn, our customers would not be able to provide the services that millions of Americans rely on every single day.

However, safety does not exist in a vacuum. We must all adhere to industry safety guidelines, but safety must also be a collaboration. Whether you’re a utility employee or you work for a utility services company, we can all benefit from sharing our safety perspectives and activities. To that end, we’ve interviewed leaders at five utilities to get their insights on how they approach safety in their organization, what safety means to them, and what safety trends they see in the future of our industry.

Heath Williams, Vegetation Field Operations, Entergy

Q: What does safety mean to your organization?
A: We’re committed to preventing injuries and occupational illnesses and want each person to return safely to their loved ones. Because of that, safety will always be considered first in every activity. No work is so urgent or important as to preclude that. If you have a plan and everyone understands and executes it, we can perform the work safely every time.

Q: What are you doing to keep employees safe?
A: With such a large workforce, communication is critical. To ensure employees receive all messages, we created a Vegetation Safety Advisory Board (VSAB). Its mission is to unify contract partners and Entergy by empowering them to share ideas, practices and values. We also perform nearly 4,000 annual safety observations on crews. Data is tracked for each, and injury levels are at the lowest ever since tracking began. When contractors and utilities unite to tackle safety challenges, the outcomes are amazing.

Q: What trends do you see for the future?
A: Specialized equipment is becoming more prevalent with vendors. Every contractor has some form of specialized equipment that would fit into this category. There will always be a need to put a man in a tree to complete certain jobs, but when a machine can replace the man and perform the task more safely, it should be a strong consideration.

Q: Final thoughts?
A: Don’t get caught up in the moment and only look one step ahead. Crews must take time to summarize their entire work plan and document it. While JSA/JHAs are required, the hazard assessment often lacks detail. When crews can identify and mitigate hazards first, they’re setting themselves up for success. And again, success is each employee going home safe.

Beth Stewart, Vegetation Management Supervisor, NH Electric Cooperative

Q: What should the industry do — or stop doing — to make it safer?
A: We must never become complacent. We must all take time to evaluate the risks in every situation, whatever the situation or job. We must communicate with one another thoroughly and work intelligently. Along the way, we cannot cut corners. There are no shortcuts to ensuring a safe working environment.

Q: What are your proven strategies for promoting a successful safety culture?
A: The most effective strategy is creating a culture of learning around safety. Every situation can be used as a learning experience — not as a punishment. Employees must attend monthly safety meetings to ensure they’re getting the most up-to-date information and guidance. We must hold open discussions for all near misses, incidents, and accidents to learn what happened, how it happened, and what we can do to improve upon this.

Q: How do you motivate your entire enterprise to think “safety first?”
A: Motivation begins by engaging every employee. We empower our people to take ownership of the safety programs so they have an active role in the safety culture. Positive reinforcement and recognition from leadership can motivate employees to keep safety at the forefront of their minds and actions.3. "ALWAYS BEING PREPARED." 
Anne-Marie Moran, Manager – NE T&D Forestry, National Grid

Q: What should the industry do — or stop doing — to make it safer?
A: People need to stop rushing! It’s important to take as much time as we need to assess, prepare and implement the task at hand. That, and we should never be afraid or hesitant to speak up — and speak up more. Crews should never hesitate to call an all-stop.

Q: What are your proven strategies for promoting a successful safety culture?
A: Encourage and establish open and honest communication among staff, consultants, and contractors. It’s important to foster a culture where all crew members watch out for each other, speak up when they see something, and stay focused on the task at hand, but not so zeroed in that they miss what’s going on around them.

Q: How do you motivate your entire enterprise to think “safety first?”
A: With the aforementioned open dialogue, we also conduct regular field visits and discussions that include timely information, praise, and thorough and fair investigations when incidents happen.

Sara L. Packer, Transmission & Distribution Vegetation Management Program Manager, Vermont Electric Cooperative, Inc.

Q: What should the industry do — or stop doing — to make it safer?
A: We work in an industry where safe work practices are sometimes more closely followed when we think we are being watched. Everyone should always work in the safest manner possible — even when we know no one is looking.

Q: What are your proven strategies for promoting a successful safety culture?
A: All line clearance personnel participate in a safety orientation prior to working on our system. This is an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to ensuring everyone goes home each night and is watching out for each other. Facilitating discussions about jobsite hazards also keeps safety in the forefront. We developed a uniform written pre-job safety briefing that is used by our line clearance contractors. It was developed with input from line clearance workers on our system, so there’s a unique sense of ownership.

Contractors must report their location each day, and we conduct monthly safety observations to identify opportunities for improvement. Each year, we organize a mandatory safety training with demonstrations, exercises, and interactivity all based on safety. It’s important to acknowledge safe work practices and celebrate success.

Q: How do you motivate your entire enterprise to think “safety first?”
A: When safety is truly held as a value, that focus will spread from individual to individual until it is shared by the group as a whole. We expect everyone to use the S.T.A.R. (Stop, Think, Act, Review) protocol to stop a job if they have questions or concerns.

We also have a strict, comprehensive three-day safety stand-down in the event of certain incidents. Contractors report that this protocol supports a team mindset and strengthens crew members’ resolve to look out for each other. Through this, we have seen an impressive change in the decisions being made on the ground and the number of incidents occurring on our system.

Q: Final thoughts?
A: As I look toward the future of the industry and the added pressures of increased growth rates, invasive species, and labor shortages, I’m keenly aware of the fact that I’m unable to do my job without the help of highly skilled, safety-minded, qualified line clearance arborists. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the men and women who safely perform this work every day on utilities across the region.

Sara Sankowich, Manager Forestry Operations & Sustainability, Unitil Corporation

Q: What should the industry do — or stop doing — to make it safer?
A: The industry needs to be thinking of safety as an asset and something to work toward together instead of viewing it as punitive. We need to be consistent, demonstrate professionalism, and encourage a culture of learning and caring. This all starts at the leadership level, creating a model for employees to follow. It’s important that utilities set an example.

Q: What are your proven strategies for promoting a successful safety culture?
A: We demonstrate safety in all of our actions, encounters, and conversations. By doing so, your actions speak louder than words. We also ask questions, converse, and listen. It’s important to understand people — what motivates them and how to connect with them to obtain results. By having honest conversations, where the value of the person is communicated as a top priority, people understand the need for safety and are motivated to reaffirm their own commitment to safety.     

Q: How do you motivate your entire enterprise to think “safety first?”
A: We’re in the process of creating metrics and team goals to measure our progress. We make things fun with friendly competition and rewards for out-of-the-box thinking and ideas. New and fun ideas that enhance the Safety First goal are celebrated, and individuals are rewarded. All ideas are welcome, and everyone is free to bring anything up for review and discussion. An open, caring, and fun teamwork environment geared toward safety is a great motivator. There is also a connection between the safety culture and workforce turnover — that caring environment is important not to push people away.

Keep the Conversation Going
Thank you to the industry professionals that shared their thoughts on safety with us. A common theme throughout is the importance of sharing results and responsibilities with one another at all times. We encourage you to continue these conversations — both with your internal teams and with one another — so that together, we can continue to advance safety throughout our industry and keep one another safe.

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