In 2010 leaders at Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) faced a conundrum. They had all the requisite safety policies and procedures in place, yet employees were still getting hurt. Knowingly or unknowingly, people were taking risks every day and relying heavily on luck to avoid catastrophe.
Acknowledging that no successful business relies on luck to meet performance goals, leaders knew it was time to take a different approach to safety management, time to look beyond policies and procedures and into the attitudes and beliefs driving behaviors.
Thus the Snohomish County PUD safety transformation began, starting with the Caterpillar Safety Perception Survey.
“The Safety Perception Survey has proven to be the best first-step tool to initiate culture change,” says Dr. Mike Williamsen, a Caterpillar Safety Services Senior Consultant. “More than any other mechanism, the survey is the spark that gets everyone looking in the same direction. It puts a stake in the ground in safety culture terms, while giving everyone an opportunity to voice an opinion.”
The survey captured safety attitudes, behaviors and beliefs of the entire Snohomish County PUD workforce. It included 73 yes/no questions linked to safety culture indicators. Managers were asked questions like ‘How are the safety activities that you perform visible to your direct reports?’, while front-line employees and their supervisors were asked, ‘How do employees actively participate in safety?’
The results were telling.
“By taking the survey we learned that our employees and managers perceive our culture differently,” said Jim West, Assistant General Manager for Customer and Energy Services. “Our traditional approach to safety wasn’t working, too many people were getting hurt and we couldn’t wait until a catastrophic event woke us up before we started to behave differently.”
Caterpillar Safety Services linked the survey data to routine safety activities – safety meetings, inspections, supervisor training – that could be improved through employee engagement, clearly defined activities for all levels of the organization and positive recognition.
From there, Snohomish County PUD deployed one Continuous Improvement (CI) team after another over the course of about two years, each team focusing on one safety activity or process to improve. Once these solutions were fully implemented employees took the survey for a second time, to gauge whether the improvement projects were having a positive impact on the safety culture.
“The follow-up surveys have shown us that if we focus on something, we’ll improve – it couldn’t be more clear,” says Stephanie Strom, a CI team facilitator. “We’ve addressed the low-hanging fruit, the issues that impact everyone, so we’re now looking at teams focused on specific safety processes. There is no shortage of opportunities.”
Snohomish County PUD has taken the survey about every two years since beginning its journey and is now preparing for a fourth round. “The survey reawakens our sense of personal accountability for safety and has really built positive frames of mind about how employees can influence business decisions,” says West.
It’s now been five years since leaders committed to engagement-based safety management. Employees have completed 10 CI projects, each one resulting in a value-added process and inspiring personal ownership in safety performance.