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Train the Trainer 101: Practical Elements for Developing a Safety Culture

If you have been a safety person for any time at all, you have heard someone say, “I can’t believe they did that!” It is usually in the context of an incident investigation. As the interviews are completed and the evidence is analyzed, it comes to light that the crew did something completely out of character, or maybe even violated a well-known rule or procedure. Sometimes we find out that the crew involved had just completed training or attended a safety meeting regarding the very risk that caused the incident.

But you know these people. They are highly skilled journeymen lineworkers, they support safety and they have a reputation for following the rules. So what happened? Culture happened! Not the lack of culture, just culture itself. The lineworkers may not have engaged in a purposeful violation of a rule or even negligence. And when the decisions were made to perform the work using a method that did not meet procedure, they had no ill will. They were doing line work the way it had always been done. This phenomenon is not limited to lineworkers. It shows up in substation crews, generation plants, and water and gas crews, as well as anywhere people are left to work under their own judgment away from supervisors and managers.

I’ve done it myself. Some 30 years ago I was clipping distribution on 50-foot poles in a swamp. The ground wasn’t just muddy – there was standing water. Handlines stayed wet and heavy, so instead of a handline, we carried 6-foot-square canvas tarps. From the pole top I removed stringing sheaves and dropped them onto the tarp. That was against the rules at that company, and if it hadn’t been for supervisors and binoculars, there wouldn’t have ever been an issue. When asked why I did what I did, I shrugged my shoulders. I wasn’t being uncooperative, I simply didn’t have a reason. And when discipline was meted out, it seemed a ridiculous if not petty situation. Even more importantly, it didn’t change a thing. Oh, I never dropped travelers from a pole top again at that company, but the culture that led me to perform that act had not changed, nor did it change for the five other linemen who were guilty of the same thing.

Understanding Culture
“Culture,” derived from the Latin word “cultura,” literally means “cultivation.” It was first used in this non-agriculture sense in Rome by the philosopher and orator Cicero (106-43 B.C.), so we’ve been dealing with culture for a long time. We understand it and, even better, we can use culture, or cultivation, to change what has been cultivated.

I have learned over the years that any change in a program usually results in short-term improvement. Most programs are aimed at and focus on one symptom or issue to the expense of others. Culture change is not simple. It requires a thoughtful, measured and integrated approach that encompasses broad elements of the safety program. Still, that does not mean it has to be a grand spectacle that disrupts the organization. Sometimes the best change begins with small steps in several areas.

Working the Land
When cultivating the earth, you start with the growing media. You evaluate it to determine what has to be done to create an environment suitable for the seed you are about to plant. In the evaluation of the growing media, you don’t throw fertilizer into the mix without identifying what is in the dirt that will prevent successful planting. Remember that fertilizer grows weeds, too. For instance, safety incentives are fertilizer. But safety incentives also create falsification of reports, outright concealment of risk and unreported events so as to ensure continued delivery of the incentive.

Incentive programs need to be clearly thought out and are best limited in duration so that they can be easily ended and replaced with improvements or even something altogether different. I am absolutely sure that there are readers now thinking, “Our incentive program doesn’t work, it has become an entitlement, and if I try to end it now, I will get major backlash.” Well, this article is not about safety incentive programs, but with crops, weeds are to be expected. A healthy crop can withstand some weeds, so don’t worry too much. Incentive programs can be good and they can hurt, too. By the way, you can finds lots of good information on how incentive programs affect safety at

Weeds may also be people. If culture is being changed via cultivation, some people have to be cultivated more aggressively than others. Any culture change requires clearly defined expectations and goals and some form of disincentive for undesirable behaviors.

Growing Taters
Once we understand the growing environment, we pick the seeds. This is where a lesson on red taters comes in. My grandfather didn’t buy prepared seed potatoes, we prepared our own. We sat on the back porch with potatoes reserved from earlier crops getting them ready for seed. My grandfather taught me two important things about growing potatoes and picking seed: The seed has to have eyes, and if it is not properly prepared, it will rot in the ground. This is key to your culture change, too.

A critical element in driving culture change is the seed you plant. The best resource for that seed is right in the field: your current supervisors. Your supervisors are people recognized by you as decision-makers and leaders. They possess innate personality characteristics that made them leadership candidates. They are naturally the key to communicate change. Supervisors are your eyes and ears. They are in constant contact with the workforce. They take the message from the office to the field. The effectiveness of that communication is determined by how you prepare them.

My grandmother had a root cellar. This is where the potatoes selected for seed waited out the winter for spring planting. She bedded them in straw, making certain they didn’t touch each other or get bruised. The humidity and temperature in the root cellar stayed constant and ensured the seed potatoes were well-maintained, and often four to five months of cold weather passed before they would be planted. At the appointed time they ended up on the porch for preparation. Seed potatoes are cut into pieces about 2 inches square to become the seed. Each cutting has to have an eye. The eye becomes the potato-bearing part of the new plant. After each potato is cut, it has to be skinned over or it will rot when planted. “Skinning over” means allowing the cut sides of the new seed to air dry, producing a water-resistant skin so that it can’t be corrupted in the field. Are you starting to see the paradigm in the potato story for training supervisors?

As an industry, we often are guilty of expecting our supervisors to be trained by their experience in the field, sort of an informal mentoring. As one of my colleagues put it, we tell them they are going to be a supervisor, give them truck keys, a cell phone and a radio, and expect everything to be OK. It’s better to do a little preparation and skinning over to get them ready for the field.

What’s Next?
There is no one particular way to prepare supervisors for the field. You have to understand your field to decide what and how to plant. Whatever you decide to do, preparation of the seed is a critical step to cultivation, and preparation of supervisors begins with training. Your supervisors need to understand the goals and the value of goals. They need to have an understanding that safety is a valuable part of the integrated function of your company, not just a slogan. They need leadership training and an understanding of group dynamics. They need basic decision-making skills and to embrace the importance of procedures and protocols. They need to understand that the people they supervise are the company’s most important assets.

Supervisors need at least basic safety training that includes training on procedures. You can spend months on a personal protective grounding program, but if you don’t provide training before you hand out the books, the program won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. Supervisors also need a meaningful safety manual. If your safety manual is the 27th revision of a 40-year-old document, it may be time for a rewrite that is functional and can be effectively used in the day-to-day preparation of crew safety tasks.

Your supervisory staff also need to be and feel that they are a part of the organization, not just tools for its success. And all of this is merely the beginning. Civilizations are not born overnight, and neither are crops or safety cultures. My grandfather didn’t just take care of his crops, he truly cared for his crops and the land upon which they grew. Here’s to a safe new year and good crops.

About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn has devoted the last 15 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is director of safety for Atkinson Power. He can be reached at

Editor’s Note: “Train the Trainer 101” is a regular feature designed to assist trainers by making complex technical issues deliverable in a nontechnical format. If you have comments about this article or a topic idea for a future issue, please contact Kate Wade at


Safety Management, Leadership Development

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