When a series of close calls led to two serious injuries at Lane Electric Cooperative, leaders realized their safety culture wasn’t as strong as they had thought. They used the Safety Perception Survey to create a baseline for improvement and began an aggressive journey to zero. Two years later, a follow-up survey confirmed measureable progress and a commitment to continuous improvement.
One of the unwritten expectations in Rick Crinklaw’s job description is an assignment no leader ever wishes to face: meet with the loved ones of a seriously injured employee. “To see the damage, the fear and the concern of the employees and their families in a moment like that, it takes a personal toll and it’s one of those things that you never ever want to have to do in your career,” said Crinklaw, general manager for Lane Electric Cooperative, Eugene, Ore.
One day, he found himself in that dreaded scenario when two employees on a right-of-way crew were seriously injured while clearing brush and small trees around power lines. Both employees suffered deep lacerations and one of them a serious concussion. Fortunately, both fully recovered, returned to their duties and, as a positive outcome of their horrific experience, Lane Electric began a journey to strengthen its safety culture.
The accident was a wakeup call to Lane’s board of directors and Crinklaw, who admits he had become complacent about safety because his organization had avoided major injuries for many years. “You may not be concerned about minor injuries or accidents, but if you’re having a lot of those they build up to something big, and that’s what we had set ourselves up for. Even though we felt we were doing well, we weren’t,” he said. “We had been lucky.”
Committing to change
Crinklaw vowed to personally take control of safety, to fix the problems that were leading to incidents. Since he was in charge of daily operations, he believed it was up to him to find solutions. He decided to “bare his throat,” and engage with Caterpillar Safety Services to assess Lane Electric’s safety culture reality and map a plan for improvement.
Through a company-wide Safety Perception Survey (SPS), which measures employees’ attitudes and beliefs about how safety is managed within their organization, Lane Electric employees were invited to share their true feelings about how safety stacks up against other business priorities. Through the survey data, the employees communicated a collective plea for greater involvement. Crinklaw quickly learned that improving the culture couldn’t be a one-man job.
“What I found from the survey was that the approach I was taking in response to those injuries was being counterproductive,” Crinklaw said. “The employees wanted to be engaged. They wanted to be contributors to the solution, rather than subjects of a top-down approach to making the situation better.”
So Crinklaw engaged employees to turn low-scoring survey categories into improvement projects. Employees representing all areas of the organization joined small continuous improvement (CI) teams and participated in Rapid Improvement Workshops to build measurable processes for more effective safety meetings, office/jobsite inspections and operating procedures. Each new or improved process included measurable accountabilities for everyone in the organization, all the way up to Crinklaw.
“I gave them control, but I’m involved at the right times and don’t feel left out,” Crinklaw said. “They own it, and through their expectations, the accountabilities they set, I own it, too. They’ve absolutely knocked my socks off with their commitment to this journey.”
The first three workshops were facilitated by a Caterpillar safety culture consultant, and now some of Lane’s own employees have been trained through Caterpillar’s Train-the-Trainer process to guide future CI teams through improvement projects in safety and other aspects critical to business success.
About two years into the journey, every employee at Lane Electric took another Safety Perception Survey, a benchmark assessment to see if their beliefs about safety had changed since the initial survey. The improvement was incredible. Employees’ positive responses increased by nearly 20 percent over the previous survey results, growth very few companies have achieved over a two-year period. Crinklaw was pleased, but not at all surprised.
“The survey substantiated that we really had come as far as I felt we had come,” Crinklaw said. “Our lagging indicator metrics were improving every year and I could see our employees demonstrating their genuine buy-in by the way they do their jobs every moment of every day.”
Prior to engaging in Caterpillar’s improvement process, Lane Electric routinely experienced annual lost time incident rates of 6.0 or higher. Its annual Days Away, Restricted and Transferred (DART) rate regularly topped 8.0. Both of those figures improved steadily after engaging with Caterpillar, reaching zero within two years. What’s more, the cooperative’s experience modification rate, a figure insurance companies use to calculate policy premiums, is at its lowest in Lane Electric’s history.
“With the commitment our employees have made, I don’t think for a second that this performance is thanks to luck,” Crinklaw said. “This is real achievement.”
The cultural improvement is cause for celebration, but not a conclusion. Shortly after the benchmark SPS results were communicated, attention turned to the next round of improvement projects, supervisor training to better prepare employees for safety leadership and a continued pursuit of safety excellence throughout the cooperative.
Through the journey, Crinklaw has discovered there was no need for his initial hesitation to pursue cultural assessment and change. He found the survey data conveys action items, not personal attacks, and has helped him lead his employees to create a culture that identifies and mitigates risks that could lead to another emergency room visit.
“If your organization is truly committed to doing whatever it takes to keep people safe, the person in my position has to tell himself ‘It doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is how the employees feel,’” Crinklaw said, “I am incredibly proud that they asked for, and created, change.”