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Eating the Elephant

There is an adage applied to seemingly insurmountable jobs: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Of course, being quite literal, my first thought after hearing the adage for the first time was, “Won’t it spoil before you finish?” And that’s the problem with safety management. There’s too much to do and too few people to do it. One way you are assured to fail is to try to do everything at once. Even a plethora of half-measures do not create sustainable change. Change comes from using a methodical approach to solving problems. If you are one of those overworked safety professionals, stop! You can’t do it all. You must figure out how to apply available resources to the challenge you have, and you start that process with an audit.

Some audits are gap analyses that use polls to examine opinions regarding safety and conditions from the perspective of the respondents. This type of audit can have very high potential for error because it involves people and assumptions about their frankness or personal agenda. Many respondents will not honestly answer a question that might make them or their supervisors look bad. Managers may be wary of answering poll questions if they think the answer reflects poorly on their management. Over the last 20 years, I have seen numerous blank responses from management and the field and, often, written comments that indicated distrust in the polling process.

Compare Metrics to Conditions
I prefer to use a system audit that compares metrics to conditions. A system audit does not rely on people’s opinions – it relies on visible conditions. Those conditions don’t have agendas or biases. Conditions are your statistics, company policies, company programs, records, manuals (including safety manuals), procedures, and field observations and interviews. Metrics are industry consensus standards, best practices and compliance standards, including the employer’s safety manual that you measure your conditions against. The field of those metrics is wide open. You can research for more metrics as you discover new conditions during the audit. You must establish parameters before the audit to meet the goal. But if during the audit you find unpredicted conditions, you may decide to expand the audit. I prefer to note the issue and set it aside for evaluation against the audit results if it is going to disturb time frames and resources.

It may sound backward to use the safety manual as a metric and a condition, but it is often a key indicator of both. The auditor measures conditions found in the field by the requirements of the safety manual. A safety manual should be a go-to resource for crews in the field during the pre-job safety conference. If the safety manual is not a resource, either crews have not been trained to use it or the manual is not considered a valuable resource. If the safety manual is not being used, you must find out why.

Safety manuals often are written using the OSHA rules directly in the manual. If you are training on the OSHA language safety manual, and then follow that reading of the rule by describing your employer’s practices on how to meet that rule, you have a problem. Your manual should be written in that directive format, explaining what to do to accomplish that OSHA requirement. If your manual describes practices, it is a resource for the field. With few exceptions, OSHA’s standards are designed to tell the employer what they must accomplish, not how to accomplish work safely. If your manual is mostly OSHA rules repeated, it is not helping you.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Goals
Getting back to the audit, you can hire safety auditors, or you can do an effective audit in-house if you have the appropriate experience and are willing to face unwanted or unexpected findings throughout the course of the examination. The first thing to do is to get support and ownership of the audit from management. Next, ask supervisors and safety personnel to discuss immediate safety program concerns. Find out if safety managers have short-term and long-term goals. Explain the purpose of an audit and how the audit is going to be conducted. I ask what they expect of the upcoming audit and what their plans are for the audit results. I also ask what they will do if the audit results find errors in the management of safety. These questions set the goals for the audit. They also give the employer a basis for creating a plan to effectively apply the audit results and build a long-term plan toward an effective safety culture.

Whether you perform a system audit or a less rigorous internal review and assessment, you use the results of that audit or assessment to set goals. Most likely the goal will be a systematic process toward safety culture improvement. In the majority of cases, the process to reach an effective company-wide safety culture seems to take anywhere from two to three years. So, there is a long-term process with defined progressive goals. These goals are typically driven by issues discovered in the audit. The audit issues drive changes that should result in the related midterm goals that will assist in reaching the final goal: a successful safety culture.

Where to Start
The most common scenario with utilities is a few safety professionals for dozens of employees. The ratio is typically even greater for contractors. But what if you had one safety professional for every 10 to 20 employees or the same ratio of your supervisors to craft workers? That is exactly how you do it – you turn your frontline supervisors into professional safety advocates. I have been able to do just that with several work groups over the last 20 years, with outstanding results. Typically, the work groups and I first got buy-in from managers and then started with quarterly, daylong training sessions. The agendas varied, but training began with human performance and supervisory skills, management of the workforce, and OSHA’s origins and how the agency works. Your company can have several agenda items in the supervisor training according to how your company operates. I always include a detailed session about what professional safety personnel do day to day and their overall responsibilities.

Once you get buy-in from your supervisors and give them the tools to be successful, the resulting safety numbers will reflect sustainable improvement within months. When I started this process with 21 supervisors at an Arizona contractor, we opened the first two quarters discussing incidents that occurred prior to the beginning of the training, and then those incidents that occurred during the time period between quarterly training sessions. We discussed the incidents, the investigation results, root causes, human factors and prevention. Around the fourth quarterly training session, the incident training discussion began as usual. During the discussion, one of the foremen noticed I was sitting back smiling and asked what was wrong. There was nothing wrong. What they were seriously discussing was first aid. Not one severe incident had occurred during that quarter. The group was discussing whether the first aid kit on-site was properly equipped, whether they should have used a doctor to clean and cover wounds, and whether the right gloves were used. What they were learning was making a difference.

Cultural Immersion and New Employees
The last item to consider has to do with consistency. We usually think of safety as crews in the field. The reality is that an employee’s safety training begins the day they walk into the front office to fill out their paperwork.

We know from experience that discipline makes a difference in safety outcomes. Consistency in applying the appropriate levels of discipline for infractions is an important part of any high-performing program, but that’s not the discipline I’m writing about. This discipline is the “no other way but the right way” discipline. This is personal discipline. This is when every employee across the company knows how things are supposed to be and will do them no other way.

This training starts at the door on the first day. It requires that all employees receive safety training particular to their work environment. It is not enough to have office personnel attend the transmission and distribution safety meeting. Those administrative and human resources personnel should have training on beginning cultural immersion for new employees.

For the candidate, employee cultural training begins when that candidate is told by the first person they meet, likely the front desk receptionist, what the rules are. That might sound something like, “Sir, please take your phone call outside.” Or perhaps, “Ma’am, please remove your earbuds and turn off your phone while you are in the building. Thank you.” It may be that the first meeting with the new employee begins with a short, written list of conduct rules, followed, of course, by holding them to those rules. This is the way successful employers begin orientation of a new employee regarding the conduct that breeds a strong safety culture. We are not the military, but this is how the military breeds a culture of discipline into recruits. And that becomes a culture of strict discipline that will protect teams in some of the most dangerous jobs in the world – like power-line work in the electric utility industry.

About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 22 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He can be reached at

Train the Trainer 101

Jim Vaughn, CUSP

After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 24 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He can be reached at