Improving the Utility Safety Culture: A Hidden Key to Employee Retention

The liquid utility field (water and wastewater treatment plant and field workers) is most often falls in the category of unsung heroes or workers that are taken for granted. This professional disconnect can be due to the negative connotation lead by the name “wastewater” or the entry level position being a high school diploma or equivalent. Many liquid utility workers may be fighting an uphill battle in gaining respect from engineering groups, city and county management, or even support personnel in the management team of the utilities administration offices. However, all operators must have on the job experience and some technical learning to obtain a state license. Once an operator becomes licensed their value increases in a job market that is increasingly getting older and expanding due to regulatory concerns. Some operators leave one municipality to another due to increase in salary, better schedules, and better working conditions. This article will highlight how having a good safety culture can help the municipality retain promising workers.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) project that the need for water and wastewater operators will increase by 6% (the average national rate). However, are the municipalities filling vacancies at the same rate of attrition due to retirements or workers leaving the industry for better working conditions? Do the operators feel that they are valued as workers and safe on the job? These are core questions that lead to the retention of the utility worker.

The BLS notes that utility workers (North American Industry Classification System-NAICS code 221300) are at a higher risk of injury and illness than most.

There have been a few fatalities that have made national news in recent years at utilities that could have been easily prevented with having more of a safety culture at the utility.

OSHA notes that worker safety is a key to worker retention, increased productivity, lower worker compensation cost, and increased revenue. Employers that have an active safety and health program that values a safety culture rather than compliance with rules or regulations are rewarded with the benefits previously listed. A safety culture is the value system from top management to the new hire that promotes a proactive approach to finding and fixing workplace hazards as way of doing business. Safety is not “first” as most signs and promotional material mention, but safety is incorporated in everything as seamless and operations.

There are seven interrelated elements in creating an integrated safety culture for any business or utility. Each core element must be developed to its fullest potential for the culture to develop and flourish. The 7 elements are as follows (adopted from the OSHA safety and health model):

  1. Management Leadership
  2. Worker Participation
  3. Hazard Identification & Assessment
  4. Hazard Prevention & Control
  5. Education & Training
  6. Program Evaluation & Improvement
  7. Communication & Coordination for Host Employers, Contractors, and Staffing Agencies

Management Leadership

Utility Directors, plant managers, shift supervisors are all considered managers in some form or fashion. A committed management unit would provide clearly defined objectives and goals for organizational safety behavior. They would finance the activities of safety through purchases and resource allocations. Every level of management would value safety practices and accomplishments as much as regulatory compliance to water quality.

Steps to implement leadership commitment to safety are:

  • Writing or personally signing a clearly defined safety policy that acknowledges safety and health as important as productivity, water quality, regulatory compliance, and customer service.
  • Communicating the policy and values to all levels of the organization
  • Visually set examples of safety behavior and demonstrate actions consistent of a safety culture.
  • Allocate resources for safety and health
  • Hold all levels of the organization accountable for safety performance

Worker Participation

Workers must feel valued in the entire process of developing a safety culture. Without the workers’ participation, the transition will be forced and doomed to fail because of the constant reinforcement of rules and internal regulations. Supervisors will then be forced to punish unsafe behavior disproportionately to rewarding safe behaviors. Workers should feel empowered to:

  • Access information regarding safety and health policies
  • Participate in all phases of the program design and implementation
  • Report injury and illness without retaliation or adverse consequences
  • Suggest how to remove barriers to health and safety
  • Hold peers and management accountable for safety and health

Hazard Identification & Assessment

A hazard is any condition or action that can cause an organizational loss. An organizational loss can come in the form of an injury, illness, damaged equipment, or even worker turnover. When a loss occurs, the organization must determine the root cause of the loss and not just the symptoms leading to the loss event. The assessment process must be structured, detailed, and deliver actionable measures to address the root cause. Hazard identification and assessment can be accomplished by:

  • Worksite analysis of past, present, and predictive data from reports, instrumentation and maintenance logs, even worker injury and illness records
  • Worksite inspections for safety hazards
  • Investigate each accident until the root cause is completely disclosed
  • Identify hazards that may arise outside of normal operating conditions including emergencies, start-up, or shut-down operations.
  • Characterize the true composition of a hazard, give a priority value to them, and identify appropriate hazard controls

Hazard Prevention & Control

The prevention and control of hazard protect the worker from injury and illness, but also give employees a clear sign that the utility cares about their wellbeing. Elimination of hazards is the best way to avoid an organizational lose. However, that may not be possible in all situations. Therefore, hazard control is appropriate for some hazards that are still present when workers are performing their daily tasks. Although some utilities are practicing substitution of highly hazardous chemicals such as gas chlorine to liquid chlorine. It is mostly because they are trying to avoid the Risk Management Program, regulated by the EPA, and not primarily worker safety. The hierarchy of hazard controls after elimination and substitution are:

  1. Engineering (Physical barrier-device such as a machine guard)
  2. Administrative (Work rule-such as work rotation)
  3. PPE (Protection worn by workers as a barrier to hazards-such as a hardhat)

Tips for implementing hazard prevention and controls are as follows:

  • Identifying what controls are available for each type of hazard
  • Selecting the proper controls by doing a detailed hazard assessment
  • Develop, maintain, and update a hazard control plan
  • Select controls that are applicable for all aspects of the organization and conditions
  • Implement the selected hazard controls with a priority on elimination and substitution of hazards
  • Follow up on all hazard controls for each task to make sure they are protective enough

Education & Training

Education and training can be thought of as a tool that binds each step together to keep the efforts cohesive. Some utilities have relied on safety training from organizations or even video tapes with outdated material. The role of education and training must be a factor in developing both management and workers to meet the overall safety culture. General workers should have safety awareness training with regular operations or maintenance training. However, if they work in a specialized area that exposes them to unique hazards, then training must be applicable to that hazard. Effective training can be done peer-to-peer, formal classrooms, online, or at the worksite. Some actions items suggested from OSHA are:

  • Provide program awareness training
  • Train employers, managers, supervisors on their individual safety roles
  • Train worker on their specific role in the safety program
  • Train workers on hazard identification and controls

Program Evaluation & Improvement

Every program in an organization must be vetted and improved in order to stay viable and productive; safety programs are no different. This effort of program evaluation must be made in a given interval and by a competent group. If there are deficiencies found in a program, then the corrections must be made in a systematic way by high risk issues being fixed first then lower risk areas lastly. Risk can be calculated as Probability x Severity=Risk. The probability of a loss event occurring can be broken down into 5 categories:

  1. Improbable
  2. Unlikely
  3. Probable
  4. Likely
  5. Frequent

Severity speaks of the consequence of a loss event when it does occur:

  1. Minor
  2. Marginal
  3. Serious
  4. Catastrophic

If your risk assessment tells you that a task is a P4 x S3=R12 then it should get your attention over a R3 item.

Program evaluation and improvement must include the following areas:

  • Monitoring performance and progress
  • Verifying the program is implemented and is operating
  • Correct program shortcomings and identify opportunities to improve (OSHA, 2016)

Communication & Coordination for Host Employers, Contractors, and Staffing Agencies

The utility must take responsibility for all workers including contract and staffing agency workers. Many utilities are not under the jurisdiction of federal OSHA or even a state OSHA, but the contract companies are under an occupational safety agency that will regulate and cite them for violations. However, local government officials have a moral obligation to make sure that workers of all types that do business with them are protected from hazards. To keep the workers safe, the utility should:

  • Communicate with all outside contractors the importance of worker safety
  • Coordinate with supervisors, owners, and workers throughout the project to make sure the worksite is safe
  • Hold all workers and agencies accountable for operating a safe worksite
  • Verify that the bids and contracts specify that safe work practices are a must for working with the municipality

A safety culture will protect the worker from injury and Illness, because the utility places a value on the lives of the workers. This is a deposit into the “good will” bank of the worker and will be rewarded with loyalty. A deep commitment to a safety culture will lead to worker retention and organizational benefits far beyond regulatory compliance.

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About Sheldon 14 Articles
Sheldon Primus is a Certified Occupational Safety Specialist with a Masters of Public Administration with a concentration in Environmental Policy. He has been in the environmental and occupational safety field since 1994. Additionally, he is a trainer for the Certified Occupational Safety Specialist program of the Alliance Safety Council-Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sheldon is an authorized OSHA General Industry and Construction trainer for the 10 and 30-hour Outreach program.

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