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Safety vs. Productivity

At a recent Line/EMT monthly safety meeting, co-workers and I discussed three separate incidents with a common theme.

Incident 1
A 12-kV primary separated into two sections and came down hot when a falling tree took it out. In a possible case of “rush to restore” mentality, an after-action assessment revealed that proper safe grounding procedures, as well as switching procedures, were not followed by our employees during the restoration process.

Incident 2
One of our meter readers slipped and fell on the steps of a backyard deck after he got his read. This resulted in injury to the employee’s back, an OSHA-recordable incident and lost productivity. An investigation revealed that, among other things, the employee was reading his Itron device while he was walking, anticipating his next read before he had even exited the premises of his current read. One of the fundamental tenets of our company’s safety program is that “all employees are responsible for working safely and maintaining a safe and healthful work environment. All employees are required to develop and demonstrate safe work habits.” This incident occurred because the meter reader failed to do his work in a safe manner.

Incident 3
In a tragic case that took place a few months ago in Florida, three utility workers were killed after being overcome by poisonous fumes in a manhole. One by one they rushed in to save their co-workers. One by one they died. I hesitate to second-guess an incident in which I was not directly involved, nor do I mean any disrespect whatsoever toward those who lost their lives, but I’d bet several safe working procedures were not followed in that situation.

The Common Theme
So, what’s the common theme here? In each of these cases, employees were in a hurry to get the job done, shortcuts were taken and established safety procedures were not followed.

Lest office employees think this doesn’t apply to them, let me ask this question before I go any further: What happens when you’re rushing to get a project done and you’re keying or entering data at a speed that exceeds your comfortable limit? Mistakes skyrocket, right? And then you have to go back and correct errors, which puts you even further behind. Sure, the consequences may not be as severe, but your well-intentioned haste can still be counterproductive.

I know – we’ve all got metrics and deadlines we’re supposed to meet. If we don’t meet them, it’s eventually going to show up in our performance reviews, right? What took you so long to restore that outage? Why does it take you so long to complete your routes? We’ve got things to do and places to be, and we’re all being measured by the clock. It’s a fast world out there, and everything has to be done yesterday.

Safety versus productivity is a battle that has raged for centuries and, as a safety guy, I have dealt with it firsthand for years. For those who lean more toward the productivity side of the scale, the mantra goes something like, “Whatever the cost, git ’er done!” For these people, safety is a secondary priority, and they feel that a few shortcuts or safety violations here and there can easily be overlooked – and sometimes even rewarded. In essence, the end justifies the means.

But let’s say one of those hard-charging employees does make a mistake and gets hurt so badly he can’t continue the job. Or worse. What happens to your productivity then? I’ll tell you, because I’ve seen it time and time again. It drops to zero, zip, nada. The job stops while the injured party is carted off and the investigation begins. Evidence is collected. Statements are taken. So much paperwork! Now the rest of the crew members have to pick up the slack, which slows them down. We all agree that incidents affect everybody: customers, utilities, the injured employee, his co-workers and his family. But what does the git-’er-done attitude say about the worker who lives it?

That attitude isn’t really about the work; it’s about “me” and “my” priorities. The definition of a priority is one thing being considered superior to its competing alternatives. When production is the priority, it means you are putting production ahead of your co-workers, your family and the families of your co-workers who depend on you for their living, too. That’s what safety is about – preventing injuries to people. Yes, we have to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time, and yes, customers and even supervisors might complain that the job is taking longer than they would like, but the reality is their convenience is not more important than the people protected by your safe work skills. Fortunately, we can perform our work in both a timely and safe manner. Plenty of research and data is now available to demonstrate that safety planning improves work planning and that safe work pays big benefits to the bottom line. So, making safety a professional priority doesn’t just improve your productivity, it shows that people are your priority, and that’s a good thing.

With that said, do us all a favor. Slow down. Do your job right. Work safely. Go home to your family tonight and then come back and see us tomorrow morning.

About the Author: Jim Breuner is the compliance and safety superintendent for Alameda Municipal Power in Alameda, Calif. Prior to his current position, he spent 30 years working for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which included roles as a third-party claims investigator and safety program consultant.

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