When Anthony “Tony” Campbell became president and CEO of East Kentucky Power Cooperative a decade ago, he made it his mission to prevent horrific accidents that killed or maimed power plant workers, lineworkers and other employees. But, as he now freely admits, he went about the job all wrong.

“I told everybody, ‘Here’s the deal: Every accident that we have at East Kentucky I’m going to at a minimum have a vice president investigate … and those that aren’t practicing safety will be culled from our employees,’” Campbell recalled.

At first, his harsh warnings appeared to pay off as the number of reported accidents dropped dramatically over the next year.

“The numbers were all looking great,” said Campbell, an electrical engineer who had come to Kentucky from Missouri, where a close friend—another co-op CEO—had experienced the trauma of a workplace death. “I could go in the boardroom and pat myself on the back. But the truth had gone underground.”

It took a “gutsy” veteran power plant worker to tell Campbell that he was deluding himself. Accidents hadn’t really gone down—employees were just afraid to report them, Campbell said.

“I just went to the employees and told them the way it was: ‘I messed up, and I’m going to go a different direction,’” the CEO said.

Campbell’s U-turn, supported by co-op employees, proved so successful that it earned him a top safety honor. The National Safety Council has chosen Campbell as a 2019 “CEO Who Gets It.” The award went to eight CEOs across the nation from a variety of industries.

Mike Willoughby, the co-op’s manager of safety, security and facilities, said Campbell’s apology all those years ago helped him gain the trust of his employees, which turned out to be the key to improving safety.

“I’d seen a lot of CEOs make mistakes, but I’d never seen one say, ‘Hey, I messed up. Work with me and I’ll fix it.’ It had a huge impact … almost overnight we saw employees go from admittedly hiding incidents to reporting even the most minor ones.”

Campbell stopped trying to be “the hammer” and reached out to employees to get them involved in improving their own safety, creating five safety improvement teams with about 60 employees.

Workers and their supervisors started talking regularly and documenting their discussions, which led to more than 1,000 safety improvements in 2017 alone. The projects ranged from constructing platforms so plant workers didn’t have to use dangerous ladders to replacing an unstable file cabinet that threatened to topple over on accountants.

From 2011 to 2018, the number of accidents dropped by nearly 70 percent. Co-op employees have worked more than 1.7 million hours—including all of 2018—without a single lost-time accident.

Campbell “has completely transformed the safety culture at EKPC,” said Bud Branham, NRECA director of safety programs. “As Tony always says, ‘It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the people.’”

Campbell helped create a “safety coin” that employees carry to remind them what’s at stake. The coin shows an adult holding a child in the air and includes the co-op’s slogan: “EKPC safety is RIGHT – Reason I Go Home Tonight.”

“It reminds them that their family, friends and co-workers also suffer if they are injured or killed,” Campbell said.