Utilities Share Safety Strategies: What Works and What Doesn’t

A panel of senior executives from utilities in the U.S. and Canada gathered last September at WEI’s Safety Summit in Portland. The audience members, consisting of safety professionals, were treated to a candid, freewheeling exchange of what has worked, what hasn’t, and the lessons learned in building world-class safety operations.

To kick off the session, each panel member discussed their personal approach to safety in their organizations.

John Higgins: I have been with PG&E for three years, but I’ve worked in the natural gas industry my entire career. When talking about field safety, the biggest issue is employee engagement. I like to say that we can’t fix what we don’t know about, so we push hard on our folks to report issues and be their brothers’ keeper. Historically, our culture didn’t always support employees speaking out. People wanted to hear good news, not bad, and we’ve worked to turn that around. Raising issues is the only way we’re going to get better.

We had a terrible incident in San Bruno, California, before I arrived (a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people). San Bruno is permanently baked into our DNA now, and it’s something we think about with every operations decision we make, with every pipe we replace and with every safety issue we discuss. We want our employees to come forward about safety issues, no matter if they’re wrong or right. In Boston or New York, if you do or say something they don’t like, they will tell you directly. In Southern California, it’s more subtle. Folks are a little more resistant to pushing back.

People wanted to hear good news, not bad, and we’ve worked to turn that around. Raising issues is the only way we’re going to get better.

Jimmie Cho: I live in Los Angles and have responsibility for San Diego and Southern California up to Fresno County line. Safety engagement are good words, but I’d add “relentless.” Safety never ends. It just takes one event to make you remember what it’s all about. Never, ever get comfortable. Never think you’ve achieved where you want to be. Just know that it’s a relentless, ongoing effort.

It just takes one event to make you remember what it’s all about. Never, ever get comfortable.

Cam Aplin: I’ve been with the industry 25 years. I’m a power lineman who took my apprenticeship with the organization and worked my way up. Four-and-a-half years ago, I stepped into my current role, vice president of operations. At that time, I thought we had a strong safety culture, but soon after I took responsibility for safety training, we had some major near misses. I quickly had to reevaluate where safety was in our organization. The piece missing was that we weren’t walking the talk and leadership wasn’t truly engaged in safety. That’s a common situation among companies. One of the things we talk about, to borrow Jimmy’s phrase, is relentless focus. We have to watch out for complacency.

Bill Nicholson: I head up the customer service, transmission and distribution areas, and I have 20 years’ experience on the generating, engineering and construction side. I like the word ‘relentless,’ but I also like ‘ownership.’ It helps me become personally involved with our frontline personnel when they’re doing hazardous work. When there’s a difficult event, I become personally involved. It’s our job to set the tone. With a difficult event, I have a commitment to follow up on the action items that are still open and to drive the completion of those items.

A lot of employees believe that injuries will happen, and that they’re part of the work. They think that they can make minor performance improvements, but they can’t get to zero injuries. I believe in 20 years, we’ll look back to 2015 and say, “remember the people who didn’t think we could get down to eliminating serious injuries?” That’s what we have to drive toward.

One of the things we talk about … is relentless focus. We have to watch out for complacency.

Mark Taylor: We all came here to get one great idea to try out at our companies. If I could implement something tomorrow, what should we implement?

Higgins: We implemented a corrective action program at PG&E, making it easier for our employees to report an issue. It can be a near miss, a concern about trucks, tools or equipment, or general concerns about our operations. Reports can be done anonymously, or a name and phone number. We have a team that manages these corrective action program (CAP) items. They’re assigned to a leader, and that leader will resolve the issue and get back to the employee. It’s driven a lot of issues to the surface that we otherwise wouldn’t know about. Our CAP program wasn’t difficult to implement. I have an app on my phone where I can call a number, send an email or enter an item.

Cho: A company with good culture has good safety culture. It’s that basic. Don’t think about safety culture; think about the overall culture you want to project. Then think about how that affects safety, morale, employee development, recruitment, retention, compensation and financial success. It all fits together.

Aplin: We’ve tried to put a positive spin on safety, because safety is normally about the numbers and the numbers are negative. We relabeled our “near miss” program to “good catches.” We recognize employees who come up with good catches to help prevent incidents, and share those learnings across the organization. We also started a safety leader program, where we recognize employees and managers who have gone above and beyond in regards to safety.

Nicholson: To drive employee ownership, we established grassroots safety teams. Ten years ago, we had a professional leading a stretching program. It started with a certain participation percentage and then it dropped off — because it was a management initiative. Our grassroots team designed a stretching program that has turned out to be more effective and sustained. It’s a matter of taking an idea and giving it to the employees for greater staying power.

Audience question: At FortisBC, I have the pleasure of rebuilding a safety team from scratch. How would you build a new safety team?

Higgins: Leave the org design last. Figure out where you need to focus, and then build your organization around it. Go see what others are doing too. You need some basic analytics around your issues, review your safety history, and that will lead to some conclusions about your safety culture.

Cho: Build a diverse, credible advisory team comprised of people who know how to do the work. I’m talking about men and women who have turned the wrench, and who have strung the line.

Aplin: First, I’d go out and see what others are doing. It doesn’t have to be in our industry. We have found that some of the best ideas are outside of it. Don’t be afraid to steal ideas. When selecting the people, they have to be energized and understand the business, and they also have to keep safety fresh in your organization and come up with different initiatives that constantly move the culture forward.

Nicholson: Make sure that the people you bring in are passionate — people who can translate policy and programs into reality, so that frontline employees can relate.

Audience question: Given the level of suspicion that can exist between crews and management, can you tell us a safety decision that was successfully translated from the boardroom to the crew room?

Nicholson: One example of a safety decision was when we went to full-fall restraints for our linemen five years ago. We got a lot of pushback. Gaining an understanding for that decision was more effective when we talked to small groups and pointed out that 19 people in the past five years had fallen off poles. Thankfully none of them were fatalities. When we personalized it, and said, “remember this specific employee,” their behavior changed. Some said, “Fine, I won’t get hurt, but if it will help other people such as apprentices, then I’ll do it.”

I like the word ‘relentless,’ but I also like ‘ownership.’ It helps to become personally involved with our frontline personnel when they’re doing hazardous work.

Aplin: Our employees do presentations to the board on what it means to rubber glove, what the equipment looks like, and other safety measures. They can see that the board really cares about the work they perform. It builds a level of trust and demonstrates to the employees up the chain that everyone has their back and wants everyone to go home safe at the end of the day.

Higgins: We’ve made very few decisions without ensuring that our employees understand why. If you’re not committed to standing in front of the employees and explaining why, then you’ll get cynicism. Also, we involve our employees in the decision-making process. For example, field employees designed our crew truck. Also, if we have a business problem, particularly a safety problem, we ask the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to work with us to get it resolved.

Audience question from Lisa Stewart, Spectra Energy: In the field, there’s a norm that you don’t challenge your superiors. In the field, I see senior workers mentoring junior workers, and the senior will be doing it the way they’ve always done it. What does our leadership do to acknowledge that many of our workers are not leaders, and that to be a leader in safety requires some development?

Cho: In 2008, we had a tragic fatality of one of our gas workers. What we learned from that incident is that we all have a responsibility to speak up and challenge any situation or condition we feel is unsafe. It doesn’t matter what your position or job title is. If you don’t speak up and challenge, something can happen. This is why we strongly reinforce “Stop the Job.” It’s a reminder that every employee at all levels has a responsibility to look out for one another.

Nicholson: In our company, our surveys show that there’s a reticence to speak out on issues in addition to just safety. If you give an alternate opinion, you’re not perceived as part of the team. Part of the challenge is building a culture that encourages constructively speaking up, but as well as increasing the receptivity of management to alternate opinions. We asked frontline employees and managers what prevents us from speaking up. The answers were the usual reasons: fear, hierarchy and not wanting to look stupid. The new generation doesn’t have the same interest in hierarchy.

Aplin: This came to light for us about four months ago. We had a serious near-miss with one of our apprentices, and what it came down to was an unwillingness to speak up. We’re doing mentor training to help more seasoned employees understand what their role is with younger employees. Managers do site observations and talk to the young guys on the site to ensure that they understand the job and that there’s good communication across all members on the worksite.

Higgins: We used to have something called a discipline matrix. If you had a safety violation, you were added to it. How would that make you feel as an employee? Would you come forward with something on your site? Absolutely not. We had driven safety underground.

A few years ago, an employee noticed an anomaly in the way a transmission line job and the trench protection was laid out. Stopping the job meant we weren’t going to get the job done before the end of the year, and it was going affect compensation payout for the entire leadership team. However, the company president brought the employee in our senior leadership meeting, and gave him an award for raising the issue and stopping the job. It set the tone for our entire culture.

Mark Taylor: What have you implemented that might not have had the desired outcome? What’s a safety decision you regret?

Cho: Several years ago one of our business units implemented a zero-tolerance wireless device policy that was more stringent than state law. Our parent company has several different business units, and not all were adopting the same zero-tolerance policy. The result was that we had different policies amongst our group of business units. What we could have done differently is made sure all other business units were aligned prior to implementing the policy at one part of the company.

Aplin: My big mistake was when faced with some major near-misses early on, my initial response was that we needed more discipline. But I soon realized discipline doesn’t change behavior. It’s appropriate for blatant disregard, but employees are going to make mistakes. Instead, we started asking, how did that employee get put in that position? In 90 percent of the incidents, the company hadn’t done all it could to keep employees out of a situation. We looked at internal controls, looked at more site observations and evaluated management engaging with employees.

Nicholson: My safety decision regret is not recognizing how important the lack of trust between employees and front-line supervisors can be. Either the supervisor is nervous that the employee will play the safety card on something that’s a personal preference, or an employee is nervous that the supervisor will discipline them or retaliate for raising an issue. It’s that mistrust that drives a lack of discussion and coming up with a better fix to a problem. We’re working on it now. It’s about giving tools to foreman and supervisors to work in a more constructive way in an aggressive culture.

Audience question from Darwin Anderson, Seattle City Light: As you put your concepts forward, how do you know as individuals that you’re walking the talk? What have you put in place as leaders to help you sustain it?

Aplin: I have to go to the front line and talk to the workers about where they see safety in the organization. I attend safety meetings, and see they are now being led by the power line technicians (PLTs) instead of management.

Cho: As you get further from the front lines, you you have fewer interactions with day to day operations. My main barometer is whether I’m hearing directly from employees.

Higgins: Jimmy’s right, if employees aren’t willing to call you directly when they have a problem, you haven’t opened the line of communication with your employees. Visits at PG&E used to be very scripted. Today, leadership meets with the employees in the morning for an hour, go to job sites, meet with supervisors separately and goes through a list of issues raised by employees. Six months later, we come in and go through that list of issues.

Audience question from Barry O’Leary, NorthWestern Energy: How do you influence people on your officer teams and your board of directors when it comes to safety?

Nicholson: At every officer meeting we discuss employees who are injured and provide updates on their physical condition. We make it personal. We also try to help office personnel understand how to embrace safety. We point out that driving is the most dangerous thing that any of us do, including frontline employees.

Cho: Leadership is managing and leading through scarcity. The toughest group to deal with isn’t your board or employees — it’s your peers, especially when you’re dealing with limited resources.

Audience question: If I interviewed your workers tomorrow, how would they rate your safety culture?

Nicholson: We do that every three years with an in-depth safety culture survey. They’re forthright. They say they’re not comfortable speaking up, so we get lower scores there. We get very high scores on the question of having what they need to be safe.

Aplin: In our recent safety survey, One question that I believe demonstrates our culture was, “Do you believe zero injuries is achievable?” The results showed that 94 percent of our employees truly believe we can get to zero incidents. To me, getting this engagement is half the battle.

Cho: We do well on the question of “the company cares about my safety.” But two years ago we had 13 employees create a safety issue by driving off with the fuel dispenser still connected to their vehicle. So there’s still work to be done.

Higgins: You’re never going to get to the finish line. We’re in the middle of the pack in the AGA annual safety survey. Our employees would rate us highly on safety culture from employee perspective, but we didn’t believe it. So we brought in Lloyd Register to review us. We have them come every six months to survey our employees on the job site. They get way down in the weeds. Are the tools calibrated? Do you understand why that process step is in the procedure? What they uncovered is we still have a lot of gaps. But generally, they’re safe and following procedures.

Audience question: Sometimes I have to come along with a rule or a change, and confront a burly lineman or worker with a chip on their shoulder. How do you deal with that?

Aplin: Our approach is there are no rule changes coming out that they would not have been a part of. Their peers roll it out and help sell it. It seems to work.

Cho: Often they’re testing you. Take them up on the offer and put them on the safety committee. If you can get them to come around, you’ll have a huge advocate.


Cameron Aplin is vice president of operations, FortisAlberta. He has more than 25 years of experience in the power line trade. He is a journeyman power line technician who has held senior roles including managing the FortisAlberta training facility and work methods.

Jimmie Cho is senior vice president of gas operations and system integrity for SoCalGas and SDG&E, Sempra Energy’s regulated California utilities. Cho is responsible for all of gas operations and engineering.

John Higgins is vice president of gas transmission and distribution operations, Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Prior to joining PG&E, Higgins had leadership roles spanning maintenance, resource planning, gas production, and project engineering at several New England gas utility companies.

Bill Nicholson is senior vice president of customer services, transmission and distribution for Portland General Electric. Nicholson previously served as vice president of distribution operations and vice president of customers and economic development.

Mark Taylor is director of field resource development with Enmax Power Corporation, and moderated the panel. With 29 years of experience in the utility industry, Mark leads the company’s field safety, work methods, trades training, apprentice and safety codes teams.



About the Author

Deston Nokes, Western Energy magazine
Deston Nokes is WE’s copy editor is an independent consultant for Western Energy Institute, Peak Reliability and Northwest Power and Conservation Council. He also works as a business and website copywriter for a variety of firms. He can be reached at