Line Mechanic Brian Moore died in a line accident 17 years ago, and that still haunts the co-op CEO.

Phil Caskey of Consolidated Cooperative chokes up recalling how he met afterward with Moore's widow, Barb. But what Caskey, manager of engineering and operations at the time, discovered during the post-accident investigation led to an initiative that transformed the Mount Gilead, Ohio, co-op's safety culture.

"There were disturbing revelations of near-miss incidents that we had never heard about," said Caskey. When we talked to the lineworkers, Caskey said "there was attitude of 'what happens in the field, stays in the field.' That stuck with me."

Moore's death led to several improvements to their safety program, including a points-for-cash system for proactive behaviors or near-miss reports. But the co-op's safety team wondered whether incentives were lucrative enough to encourage consistent employee reports.

"We were getting fewer, not more, reports from employees than we expected," said Caskey. "The concern was that we'd remain unaware of accidents or near-misses if the employees thought they'd get in trouble. So for a near-miss or accident with little or very minor damage, it was too easy for employees to keep it to themselves."

Caskey and his team decided on a different approach: What if they removed the fear of discipline from the reporting process and turned those mistakes into learning opportunities?

"In an ideal world, when somebody breaks a rule, there's punishment, right? But in that paradigm, what are we missing because we're not getting those near-miss reports?" said Caskey. "We're missing the opportunity to learn and to prevent things from happening in the future."

Here's how the co-op's formal amnesty policy, underway since 2015, works: Employees seeking amnesty submit a digital "Near Miss Reporting Form." Incidents can take place in the field, the co-op office or even at home. Rule violations warrant an evaluation by a review panel of co-workers from different units throughout the co-op. They determine whether the employee was willful and the potential consequences of the incident.

Any employee identified in a near-miss report qualifies for amnesty. That means no internal disciplinary action, and the incident won't become part of their personnel files.

And managers are still involved. "But we're not looking for blame," said Caskey, who eschews a "sticks and clubs management" style. "The goal is how can we make this a place where these things don't happen? What tools or training didn't we provide? What can we change in our processes and our engineering?"

Caskey is keenly aware that outsiders might wonder about the potential for employee abuse or whether the co-op has gone soft on transgressors. While "it's a theoretical risk," the tradeoff is worth it.

If an employee flouts the rules, "first, his peers are likely to exert influence to keep everyone safe," he said. "Secondly, by having the information, we can still certainly coach the employee without exercising discipline. And if an employee willfully chooses not to work safely, the likelihood of that person behaving poorly in other ways, giving us ample opportunity to take appropriate action."

The amnesty policy is gaining acceptance at the co-op, said Caskey. The co-op has tweaked administrative aspects, such as switching to online reporting, which might generate even more reports.

Most importantly, said Caskey, the policy has improved morale in the workplace.

"Now, when employees make mistakes, they have confidence and assurance that the cooperative can use the facts from the circumstances to adjust work procedures, tools and equipment or training to minimize the chance of those types of incidences and mistakes recurring."

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