What Auston Biles is selling can’t be quantified, held in the palm of your hand or connected to the internet. But it changes lives.

It’s safety, and Biles, senior safety coordinator at Dakota Gasification Company, believes the time is right to market it like other commodities.

“A lot of folks joining the workforce know little about safety other than to not put a fork in an outlet. It’s our job as professionals to meet them where they are at,” Biles said. “We have to sell this by coaching people that safety has real value in their lives.”

NRECA's Safety Leadership Summit kicks off this week, highlighting one of the most important topics that electric cooperatives must deal with.

Biles has a broad perspective on the subject, starting as a firefighter and EMT, moving into the construction safety world and working in a variety of roles since 2010 for Basin Electric Power Cooperative and its Dakota Gas subsidiary.

And on a recent Saturday morning, he was on the ground with others in Bismarck, North Dakota, installing free smoke detectors at homes as part of the American Red Cross-sponsored “Sound the Alarm, Save a Life” program. Biles has chaired the Red Cross board of directors for western North Dakota since 2018.

A job or career?

A few years into his career, Biles met a senior safety professional who had retired and returned as a consultant. It was a career-altering encounter.

“He asked me one day, ‘Have you figured it out yet? Are you a safety guy or are you a life coach?’” Biles recalled.

“He began to explain how by being a safety guy, you’re changing mindsets and thus helping people make their lives better. You’re not just writing noncompliance tickets, you’re making an impact on them and their family. I’d never had it explained to me like that before. It’s been a foot on the gas ever since.”

After working as a firefighter in Oregon, Biles started climbing up the safety responsibility ladder. He worked for a company performing maintenance and industrial construction at two Basin Electric plants and knew he wanted to hook on with the cooperative when an opportunity arose.

“It was the way they treated people. They truly appreciated the contractors being there and helping them, and that’s where I knew I wanted to be.” He has been at Dakota Gas for four years after working in other Basin Electric locations.

New role for safety

In that time, Biles has seen a new emphasis on safety. Safety personnel now sit in on pre-bid and pre-construction meetings so their expertise is registered ahead of time, rather than solicited in after-the-fact consultations.

“I think successful companies know that safety has to be in those beginning meetings, be part of the building costs and not wedged in until after a project has been commissioned,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about Basin. The culture is one of giving safety a seat at the table.”

Part of Biles’ safety sales pitch is designed to impress the way a single mishap can alter lives of family and friends, not just the worker. Doing a routine facility check early in his career at Basin Electric, he came across an employee standing too high in a ladder, working on a valve. He took it as a teachable moment, suggested some alternatives and gave them the chance to think about who at home their actions would impact if they were to get injured, then walked away.

A few years later, that same worker wanted to be on a safety group as part of an initiative between Basin Electric and Caterpillar's safety program. “They used that story as to why we all need to care about each other. I got goosebumps. That individual said that if the safety person didn’t care enough to stop and explain what could have happened with the ladder, they never would have looked at it in that light.”

Commitment to community

The same goes for Biles’ work with the Red Cross smoke detector program. His team went into a home in Dickinson, North Dakota, installed a detector and provided fire safety training to a mother and her three children.

She started to cry and praise the volunteers for saving their lives. The family was home when a recent kitchen fire erupted fire, she explained. While they extinguished the blaze, it might have claimed their lives if they were in a different part of the house without a detector.

“That's when it really hit me, the impact that we were doing with the Red Cross. And so at that point, I was ready to knock on every door in Dickinson at that point,” Biles said.

Going forward, Biles wants to see companies value safety as much as they value their production, whatever they are manufacturing. Selling employees on safety can increase morale, production and employee retention, he said.

“It will help with a lot of that younger generation that’s moving to a new job every three to five years. Now, they’re thinking, ‘This place cares about me and is making safety a true priority. I could go somewhere else, but are they going to be better than here?’”

Steven Johnson is a contributing writer for NRECA.