A Positive Safety Culture Is a Game-Changer

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Organizational Culture and Safety

More than ever before, utility CEOs and other top executives recognize that developing a strong, sustainable company culture can deliver meaningful value in terms of recruiting and retaining the best employees, strengthening an organization’s brand identity, and earning the trust and ongoing support of customers and stakeholders.

This is especially true when it comes to safety, as the health and well-being of employees and the public are at stake when they live and work in proximity to electrical and natural gas infrastructure.

Today, regulators, policy makers, insurers, and investors consider a company’s culture and safety commitment when evaluating utility capital investments, cost recovery, and perhaps more importantly, liability.

Beyond organizational safety, the spotlight is also shining on how companies address public safety programs. Stakeholders expect utilities and pipeline operators to be proactive and predictive, as opposed to reactive, in their approach to educating the public and avoiding accidents.

A Strong Culture Drives Safety

“Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing.”

—Brian Chesky, Co-founder of Airbnb

This quote perfectly describes the goal of developing a robust organizational culture with a strong focus on safety. Desired behavior is then automatic and contagious.

Culture forms organically in organizations when people work together to achieve a common goal. A strong safety culture develops when employees at all levels consistently embrace and demonstrate personal responsibility for their safety, as well as the safety of their colleagues and the public, both on the clock and off. Defining and measuring shared personal and company values, traditions, and norms proves challenging, but it is possible.

Utilities that prioritize safety assess their culture by examining employee perceptions and beliefs. They also examine the effectiveness of the structural framework that exists to support and sustain the desired safety behaviors and results. These assessments often include audits of their selected metrics and performance, governance structure, methods and procedures, process adherence, policies, and incident drivers, to name a few. Similar principles and processes should apply to utility public safety as well.

The Utility Public Safety Alliance (UPSA), formed more than 15 years ago, comprises like-minded electrical and natural gas pipeline safety professionals from the most respected utilities and pipeline operators spanning the country (see upsa-utilitypublicsafetyalliance.org). The fact that their organizations sponsor their participation in this industry group is a testament to their safety commitment.

However, even among this group, significant opportunities exist to strengthen their organizations’ safety cultures. In a Culver Company survey fielded during the 2019 UPSA Annual Meeting, 4 out of 10 attendees strongly agreed that their organizations have strong safety cultures. However, some disconnect exists, as only 1 out of 10 felt as strongly that their organization’s safety culture extends beyond employee safety to include protecting the public.

Additional feedback from attendees at UPSA demonstrates that there is a high bar when it comes to utility public safety expectations and culture:

  • Over half of UPSA 2019 attendees don’t agree that their organizations adequately fund public safety initiatives based on program- and company-level goals.
  • The same percentage personally believe their company can improve its efforts to educate the public about natural gas and electrical safety.

Admittedly, this passionate group of safety professionals hold higher expectations than most and likely never will feel any organization has “arrived”; however, the results do point to opportunities for improvement even among the more safety-minded organizations.

Modeling the Way

Senior leadership’s role is undeniable in the evolution and maturation of a safety culture. Leaders who consistently model the desired behavior and commitment, provide adequate resources and political support, and reward and celebrate improvement and success send a strong message that safety is important. Their actions motivate employees to adopt a safety mind-set more effectively than words or written directives.

“A positive safety culture also means that every individual communicates safety concerns without fear of retaliation. Open and honest communications across all levels of an organization, and to all key stakeholders, are necessary for a positive safety culture. [1]

The ability to report concerns without fear is a necessary component of a positive safety culture. Organizations can also encourage (and demand) this behavior from any vendor or contractor.

UPSA Annual Meeting Perceptions of Their Organization's Safety Culture

Third-party contractors, excavators, construction companies, and other entities that may come into contact with utility infrastructure generally do not exhibit the same safety commitment and focus as pipeline operators and utilities. According to a 2016 National Safety Council poll, 50 percent of employees report safety meetings are held less often than they should be, 39 percent think management does only the bare minimum as required by law to keep employees safe, 36 percent say safety takes a back seat to completing job tasks, and especially concerning, 30 percent say they fear reporting safety issues. [2]

A utility’s ability to gauge and to influence the safety cultures of excavation, construction, and third-party contractors is less straightforward but is worth the investment due to the risk they pose working around overhead and underground assets. A good place to start with third-party contractors and similar stakeholders is to directly ask contracted “at-risk” third-party workers if they personally prioritize productivity over safety and whether this is consistent with their organizations’ priorities. Conducting primary research with external at-risk workers helps utilities better understand what matters most to these employees and helps determine which utility safety outreach efforts are most effective. Primary research can also identify any disconnects between what management or organizational trainers communicate versus desired safety behaviors. In short, utilities can help educate and motivate external at-risk workers by appealing to what is most important to them using consistent, meaningful messages delivered through the right channels.

Over time, research shows that exposure to meaningful education programs that emphasize how and why it is important to act safely around utility infrastructure helps to shape workers’ beliefs and values about safety. These messages strengthen their trust in the local utility and may ultimately have a positive effect on their own company’s grassroots safety culture, even if the organization is not fully supportive. The same is true with effective public safety messaging, which often results in increased awareness and more timely reporting of potential problems.

Enhanced Public Safety Programs Deliver Results

There are strategic advantages, including brand and rate case benefits, of implementing public safety programs. For instance, J.D. Power reports that awareness of gas and electric utility efforts is associated with customer satisfaction increases (on a 1,000-point scale) of 112 points (electric utility) and 121 points (gas utility). [3] In addition, effective safety messaging can also help support utility cost recovery. Seventy-three percent of utility customers find safety messaging persuasive to justify rate increases.[4]

Proof of Concept: One of Culver Company’s large gas and electric utility partners has renewed and expanded its commitment to internal and external safety initiatives. The utility has strategically leveraged brand marketing tactics to amplify its external safety messaging and has seen meaningful progress in sentiment among key stakeholder groups. Culver Company’s primary effectiveness research demonstrated that members of the public, first responders, and public officials exhibited higher safety message recall from this utility as compared to other utilities’ surveyed stakeholders. Public officials and first responders stated that they believe the materials make them safer when dealing with utility-related situations, and they consistently show higher awareness, knowledge, and responsiveness to potential problems, such as gas leaks. All stakeholder groups report the materials reinforce and boost the utility’s credibility.

Higher Expectations and Bigger Opportunities on the Horizon

“A public utility’s track record of safely operating its system relies on more than messages and slogans. An effective safety culture is shaped by the governance, policies, budget, practices, and most of all, the accountability set by the top leadership.

—California PUC President Michael Picker

The evidence is clear—effective public safety programs save lives, prevent injuries, reduce service interruptions and infrastructure damage, build trust with customers and communities, and provide investors and regulators the assurance that utilities are well-run companies.

The environment in which utilities and pipeline operators work has changed. Customer expectations and scrutiny are intensifying. Regulators, elected officials, and the general public increasingly expect companies to be predictive and proactive in regard to safety. The financial and reputational cost to a utility or pipeline operator resulting from an accident can be devastating.

The same increase in safety expectations seen in the public are reflected in today’s workforce. The good news is that developing a safety culture links to core values already held by most employees. Employees don’t come to work thinking that one of their actions will injure themselves or someone else. The key is for an organization to capitalize on this by creating an environment conducive to learning about safety and keeping relevant reminders front and center in order to avoid complacency. Utilities have the opportunity to play a role in this by serving as the go-to energy safety expert and consistently providing relevant communication.

Born between 1981 and 1999, Millennials, in particular, represent a significant opportunity to instill stronger safety cultures at utilities as well as within third-party contractor organizations. This group accounts for more than one-third of workers, making them the largest generation represented in the U.S. labor force, according to Pew Research Center’s 2018 analysis of U.S. Census data. Furthermore, over the next few years, over half of the workforce will be composed of Millennials. This generation proves particularly passionate about joining and staying with organizations with strong, positive, and community-oriented cultures. Specifically, this group prioritizes working for companies dedicated to protecting the well-being of communities as well as their workforces. They also seek employers who will invest in their personal growth and well-being. [5] The receptivity and values associated with Millennials opens the door even wider for utilities to help catalyze more robust safety cultures among the at-risk public as well as transform their own safety cultures as this receptive generation increasingly entrenches themselves in the labor force.

Culture Is Key
Safety is the cornerstone of overall organizational culture, and how a company nurtures it speaks volumes about its priorities and values. Organizations that commit to developing a strong and sustainable safety culture send a message about the importance of the health and well-being of their employees and the public. That’s critical to recruiting and retaining the best workers, particularly the Millennial generation. Third-party contractors, regulators, public officials, customers, and the general public demonstrate greater trust and support for organizations that value and promote safety, and that translates to the bottom line in many ways. Even more importantly, the data is clear—a strong safety culture results in internal and external behaviors that protect workers and those who live near and work around utility infrastructure.

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About Culver Company

Culver Company brings more than 40 years of experience working with leading utility companies nationwide. Our clients gain access to a powerful and diverse team of professionals with the technical expertise, industry insight, and strategic experience to help organizations meet their goals.

Culver Company maintains an industry leadership position because we customize our services to each utility’s unique goals, regulatory environment, and at-risk public profile to move beyond compliance and hone a utility’s existing public safety culture. Our team takes a strategic approach to help evaluate your company’s strengths and identify areas of improvement. We have the experience, know-how, and data to help evolve your public safety program to the next level to ultimately mitigate risk while adding value to your public image and financial health.

Contact us to begin the conversation:

Culver Company – Strategic Services

800-428-5837

solutions@culverco.com

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[1] American Gas Association Safety Culture Statement, 2019, https://www.aga.org.
[2] National Safety Council website, accessed August 2019.
[3] 2019 J.D. Power Utility Satisfaction Outlook.
[4] Rate Case Messaging: The Character/Competency Conundrum, Hahn Research, 2016.
[5] How Millennials Want to Work and Live, Gallup 2016.