Customized communication skills training and a window into what safety culture excellence looks like set Sam Houston Electric on a journey to sustainable safety improvement. In a close-knit cooperative where co-workers are like family, once employees learn how to effectively communicate about safety, the stage is set for continuous improvement.
After tragedy, transformation
Ronnie Hindsman doesn’t remember the exact day a horrific on-the-job accident took both of his arms, but he vividly remembers December 28, 2005. That’s the day he went back to work after an 18-month recovery period and re-joined the team he calls ‘family’ at Sam Houston Electric Cooperative.
Hindsman, a former lineman, now works as a training and safety inspector, teaching new employees how to safely work on and around power lines. “Now, working with the safety department, I feel like if I have an impact on just one person, save one person from getting hurt like me, I’ve done a good thing,” he said. He shares with his trainees the harsh reality that simply wearing gloves the day of his electrocution would have prevented his life-altering injury.
Through Hindsman’s experience, employees at Sam Houston have learned the importance of wearing personal protective equipment, and now they’re working with Caterpillar to strengthen the main building blocks of safety culture excellence: accountability and effective communication. Leveraging tools from Caterpillar’s safety skills programs S.T.A.R.T.™, Speak Up!, Listen Up! and Recognize It!, a Safety Services consultant built and delivered a customized, two-day workshop for executive and middle management and front-line supervisors at Sam Houston Electric’s Livingston, Texas, training facility.
A new set of tools
Just like broad shoulders or brown hair might be one family’s signature trait, it’s a strong work ethic that defines the Sam Houston Electric family. For Hindsman, that meant returning to work as soon as he was physically able. For others at the cooperative, it means doing good work – and doing it quickly – no matter the risk.
“But if you see someone doing something unsafe, and you ignore it, you’re telling that person that it’s acceptable behavior,” said Scott Ferguson, Sam Houston Electric’s safety director.
Even in work environments where co-workers feel like family, speaking up with concerns about safety isn’t necessarily a natural instinct for every employee. In fact, questioning a crew member about a risky behavior may be more difficult if that person is a friend or a senior colleague.
Caterpillar’s Speak Up! communication skills program lays out a simple, but effective strategy for expressing concern, developing a solution and following up to make sure the corrective action was implemented. The Listen Up! program presents tips for focusing on the message, not the messenger, so the safety-related feedback doesn’t feel like criticism. Recognize It! reveals a surefire prescription for sustaining improvement: look for opportunities to recognize employees through sincere, genuine and timely gratitude for good performance. When discussions about safety become more positive in nature than negative, so does overall morale and productivity.
“Most of us had never seen the kinds of strategies that were presented, or thought of safety in that way, but it seems basic once you learn it,” Hindsman said. “The presenter broke everything down, step by step. I got a lot out of that.” Through the scenarios presented in S.T.A.R.T., which stands for Supervisor Training in Accountability and Recognition Techniques, the Sam Houston team learned about the critical role supervisors can play in cultivating safety engagement. When supervisors learn how to foster employee ownership in safety management, and organizations discover that the accountability systems they use to drive productivity and quality can be leveraged just as effectively in building safety excellence, improving safety performance becomes a team effort from which everyone benefits.
We are “Safety”
The culture change process is lengthy, but David Babcock, the cooperative’s chief operations officer, began seeing personal transformations soon after the training. “The very next day I attended the Livingston (facility) safety meeting and I could see a change in the way our supervisors handled the meeting,” Babcock said. “It was obvious they were using the tools from Caterpillar’s class.”
Later Babcock also noticed supervisors volunteering to lead safety meetings, a responsibility that had previously been perceived as something only the safety department should fulfill.
“We all needed to learn that watching out for safety isn’t just my job, but part of everybody’s job.” Ferguson said. “The attitude is shifting from ‘He is safety’ to ‘We, all of us, are safety.’”
Though Hindsman was the only employee injured on the day of his accident, every employee at Sam Houston bears an emotional scar from the experience – a harsh reminder that even the most experienced employees aren’t invincible. It is Babcock’s hope that with training from Caterpillar, employees will be less inclined to take risks, more comfortable speaking up when something doesn’t seem right and always mindful that no job is worth doing if it can’t be done safely.