Serious safety incidents were mounting for GreyStone Power, occurring at an average of two per month in 2007. CEO Gary Miller knew something had to be done.

“OSHA recordables were going in the wrong direction,” Miller says. “We were approaching, I think, our worst year; we had 23 incidents in 2007. We had to get our hands around this.”

Within months, a newly formed safety steering team began looking at all incidents reported by co-op staff.

“Every incident and every injury that we have the team reviews,” Miller says. “They go to the field and visit the site if they need to. They conduct interviews with staff members to get all the facts, and an after-action report includes analysis of the incident and suggested preventive measures.”

The Douglas, Ga., co-op also began requiring all 253 employees, as part of their annual performance review, to list 12 unsafe conditions they encountered throughout the year and steps taken to correct or reduce the danger.

“These can be on or off the job,” Miller says. “Safety is not just an 8-to-5, Monday-through-Friday thing. We’re changing the culture and changing the mindset and working to put safety 24/7/365 on people’s minds.”

GreyStone Power’s change in safety culture put an emphasis on not just examining incidents after they occurred, but on being vigilant about unsafe conditions and focusing on a metric that it critical to understanding and preventing accidents: near misses.

“Reported near misses are extensively investigated,” Miller says. “A report is generated for leadership to make them aware of the incident and alert them to what preventive measures have been put in place.”

Since first designating safety as a core value in 2008, the co-op’s federally reportable incidents have plummeted. This is the co-op’s best year ever, with just two OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)-recordable injuries reported by early September 2016. Safety inspections by Georgia’s statewide association have placed the co-op as a top-tier system.

“It’s like having 500 eyeballs every day looking for unsafe situations throughout the workplace,” Miller says. “Safety is something we all work on together.”

Near-Miss Reporting

A “near miss” is defined as an incident that presented the possibility of injury or property damage, but no negative effects actually occurred. Those include things like missed communications in the field that could have resulted in energized line contacts or hitch problems involving co-op vehicles and equipment trailers. It could also be fall hazards in co-op offices and near misses in co-op warehouses and equipment yards.

Safety experts say such close calls, when reported, can provide an enormous amount of information about process, attitudes, and culture that could be used to avoid future incidents.

“Near misses go on every day,” says Phil Irwin, president and CEO of Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange in Lenexa, Kan. “If we can gather that information from the near misses, we’ll have better statistics to support specific training goals, operational changes, or other mitigation strategies. The best way to get that data is encouraging people to report those incidents when they’re still fresh in their minds.”

Irwin says “serious” incidents account for just 2 percent of Federated’s claims but represent 75 to 80 percent of their “claim dollars paid.” Each of those claims, he adds, could represent “multiple unreported similar events or near misses,” which do not show up as claims because of fate, luck, or intervention.

Federated has sent at least four updates on near-miss reporting to electric co-op managers and safety staff at statewide associations since launching the database. They also share results with co-op staffs during regular safety meetings.

Parr said they’re already beginning to see some patterns. In one contact injury that occurred in 2015, there were two subsequent near misses that were “eerily similar” to the reported incident.

“That’s why near-miss reporting is so important,” he says. “Sharing details anonymously could help co-ops assess threats beforehand, so staff can be made more aware of potential risks.”

Parr says it’s too early to predict, but he hopes the new data will add to recent safety gains.

“We’ve seen our incidents decline over the last eight years due to many factors, but especially the heightened awareness of our members regarding safety,” he says. “We believe that near-miss reporting will enhance that awareness, but we have not had enough experience to come up with quantifiable data.”

Openness and Honesty

In the past year, the safety and loss control team at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives has incorporated discussions of Federated’s near-miss program into the regular crew-observation visits it makes to 25 member co-ops.

“The lineworkers will often open up during apprentice and journeyman courses,” says Dwight Miller, director of safety and loss control for the Columbus-based statewide. “Sometimes the openness and honesty can create a bit of an awkward situation, but it opens up the door for conversation and often gives us a chance to address a touchy situation. This autumn, we’ll be facilitating a web-based safety meeting that will focus solely on near misses and any notable trends.”

This year, members of the statewide’s safety and loss control staff expect to conduct at least 30 meetings at distribution co-ops and G&Ts focusing on the Speak Up!/Listen Up! program, an ongoing campaign created by NRECA and Federated that seeks to empower employees at all levels of the co-op to champion safe practices.

Changing the View

“Federated, statewide safety professionals, and many co-op leaders from across the country are working hard to create feedback-rich environments in our cooperatives,” says Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety and loss prevention. “Feedback, both positive and constructive, is highly valued and encouraged as a way to protect the welfare of our employees. This requires a safety culture founded on open, two-way communication and high levels of trust at every level of the co-op.”

Branham notes that near-miss reports, which are drawn from real-life examples that the staffs of co-ops share, fit in well with the Speak Up!/ Listen Up! program.

“We’ve had a couple of co-ops report back where people did speak up,” says Lidia Dilley-Jacobson, director of safety and loss control for the Maple Grove-based Minnesota Rural Electric Association (statewide). “They did stop someone from possibly doing something that could have been unsafe. And even though maybe the person responded back, ‘Yeah, yeah, I knew that. I knew that was the energized cabinet, not this other one over here,’ such examples reinforce the message that speaking up and being willing to listen can avert a tragedy. They can have an impact and change an outcome. When they speak up, they are not going to have to worry or wonder, ‘What if I had?’”

And, she adds, when new apprentices know their concerns will be heard and considered along with those of 30-year journeyman lineworkers, it means more eyes are placed on potential problems.

“We’re getting that message to the apprentices that you can speak up; it doesn’t matter that that’s your boss or the senior guy in the crew,” Dilley- Jacobson says. “If it looks unsafe or feels unsafe, say something about it.”

In Alabama, co-ops have incorporated Speak Up!/Listen Up! and near-miss reporting into the Alabama Rural Electric Association’s “100 Percent Safe Every Day, Every Life” campaign.

The initiative, offered to every distribution co-op in the state, encourages all co-op employees to make safety a way of life.

“With the 100 Percent Safe campaign, we’re asking for people to give us more time devoted to having safety conversations, which is exactly what Speak Up!/Listen Up! is geared toward,” says Michael Kelley, director of safety, loss control, and regulatory compliance for the Montgomery, Ala.- based statewide. “When we hitched them together, it just really began to click.”

Kelley has conducted more than 30 Speak Up!/Listen Up! trainings for co-op managers and supervisors. He’s also led separate trainings for co-op directors with a goal of removing barriers to open discussions of safety issues.

“We talk a bit about the fears that people have, you know, about speaking up, and then why we must make an effort to listen to the other person,” he says. “Open communication fosters the sense of kinship often seen among fishing and hunting buddies where an older, more experienced guy learns from the good skills and techniques used by the newcomer.”

While smaller co-ops can get that done in a few meetings, it could take Kelley as much as a year to reach all employees at larger co-ops, delivering the message to about a dozen staffers at a time.

“At its core, the program is about caring. I care about the safety of my co-workers, and I want to them to know that,” he says. “I want to know that every day, someone is watching out for me too and that they care enough to stop me if they see me approaching a task or a situation in an unsafe way.”

The Big Payoff

Perron Nicholas, NRECA’s manager of university programs, says near-miss reporting is part of a broader strategy to move co-ops away from the “hours without incident” model of measuring safety success. Such so-called lagging indicators, he says, put the focus on the past when it should be on the present.

“When you approach safety as a core value or a strategic goal, it elevates the roles people play in a co-op’s overall operations,” he says.

Nicholas compares the “hours without incident” model to trying to drive a car while looking through the rearview mirror. “What we need to be doing is looking out the windshield at those leading indicators.”

Another drawback to the older model, Nicholas says, is that it can create an outsized effect when incidents do occur, impacting morale co-op-wide, causing anxiety among families of employees, and even raising member concerns.

GreyStone Power’s forward-looking safety policy was front and center after a crew member was seriously injured in a 2011 pole fall. CEO Miller mandated from then on that all co-op employees would wear full fall-arrest protection whenever they were training or doing any pole work, without exception.

Members of the co-op’s lineman’s rodeo team expressed concern that the added gear would slow them down, potentially cutting into their competitive edge, but the group trained hard and adapted.

“They went to the state and won first, second, and third place,” Miller says. “Then they won the overall international out in Kansas City, all using the fall-arrest equipment.”