Voice of Experience: Safety Excellence Equals Operational Excellence
I have been asked to present the opening keynote address at the fall iP Safety Conference & Expo, which will take place September 25-27 in Vancouver, Wash., just a few minutes outside Portland, Ore. It will be an honor to stand before conference attendees to share a safety message that will set the tone for the three-day conference. I plan to discuss safety excellence – how employees who work and operate with excellence at all times promote an excellent safety environment, one free from serious injuries and fatalities.
At the time I’m writing this, there have been at least four fatalities and one severe contact in the electric utility industry during a three-week period that ended around June 4. The incidents harmed a lineman for an investor-owned utility who had 25+ years of experience, a lineman for a municipality who had 8+ years of experience and two linemen for a utility contractor who each had 10+ years of experience. There wasn’t one specific reason for all these incidents and, as you can see, the linemen had a wide range of experience across all types of utility employment. Many family members and other loved ones lost someone or suffered the effects of a serious, harmful on-the-job event. Why? The incidents didn’t occur due to equipment failure – they occurred due to subjective decisions made by the victims. As I’ve always said, the electric utility business is hazardous, but only dangerous when employees fail to follow all the rules all the time. It is truly more dangerous to drive to a work location than it is to perform work tasks once a lineworker has arrived at the site. When driving, we have no control over other drivers. When at a job location, we have total control over all procedures and decisions as the energized work proceeds.
The common thread throughout each of the incidents mentioned above is the failure to operate with excellence. If every work rule and procedure was properly followed by each of the victims, the outcomes could very well have been different. Safety training was provided in the past, but ignored or forgotten at the time of the incidents. Excellence can’t prevail when these types of incidents occur.
I don’t know all the details of each incident since the investigations are still in the early stages. I can tell you that causal factors communicated in the initial announcements have been consistent with a failure to operate with excellence. Some examples are failure to use proper cover-up, failure to use protective equipment, failure to use rubber gloves within the minimum approach distance of exposed energized conductors and equipment, and failure to recognize changing conditions. Please know that I am in no way being critical or pointing fingers. However, failure to follow all the rules and look out for each other sometimes results in serious injury or death.
A Cultural Deficiency
As safety professionals, we provide the very best in world-class training, but must understand that training is only the beginning of establishing safety excellence. Human performance teaches us that humans are fallible. Active and latent errors that are overlooked and left uncorrected by employees and management will affect the daily operations of crews and individuals. This cultural deficiency is a primary cause of accidents and incidents. Employees have been trained and have demonstrated that they understand and are capable of performing the tasks required of them, but for some reason they fail to follow the accepted work practices. Obvious failures in very basic work procedures are documented as investigations are completed. Employees have stated that they stood by and allowed unsafe actions to occur.
Investigations of past accidents and incidents have proved that by not following the rules – by not operating with excellence – there is a better than average chance of something going wrong. Conversely, by following all the rules and work procedures accepted by the industry and expected in light of performance standards, employees will remain safe.
The investigations I’ve personally been involved in have proven my point. The facts indicated that the victims didn’t follow their training – they didn’t operate with excellence, so something bad happened. The question I ask is, why do employees choose to ignore their training and assume additional risk?
Looking Back, Moving Forward
My keynote address at the iP Safety Conference & Expo this September will point out facts to help all of us achieve safety excellence by operating with excellence. By looking in the rearview mirror while moving forward with our work, we will be able to understand what happened in the past to create a safer future. Lagging indicators such as incident rates, severity and DART rates only point out what has already occurred. How do we prevent similar events from happening again? Just because nothing has happened to us up to this point doesn’t mean we’re OK. This could simply mean our “luck bucket” is being used up and might soon run out.
Working in an excellent manner requires all employees to look out for one another by assuring that there is no failure by any employee to follow performance and consensus standards at all times. You must always identify poor, unacceptable work procedures and practices and immediately correct them. With the correct training and encouragement – as well as the ability to recognize and reward correct actions – the seeds of safety excellence can be sown. Continuous improvement will ensure that the past will not be part of the future.
I look forward to seeing each one of you at the iP Safety Conference & Expo. I will be there all week, presenting and working hard to provide education and training that will prevent these types of incidents from occurring in the future. See you in September.
About the Author: Danny L. Raines, CUSP, safety consultant, distribution and transmission, retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and opened Raines Utility Safety Solutions, LLC, providing compliance training, risk assessments and safety observation programs. He is also an affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Center OSHA Outreach in Atlanta. For more information, visit www.electricutilitysafety.com.