Cultivating a Safety Culture Amid Constant Change

Developing a power plant safety culture takes time and constant effort, but the payoff is priceless, safety leaders at three major power companies said during a morning session at the Experience POWER virtual event on Sept. 30. 

Jeffrey Mullins, safety and health consultant for the 2.6-GW coal-fired Gavin Power Plant owned by Lightstone Generation, kicked off the panel discussion by explaining the importance of establishing a safety culture. “The number one thing about safety is that its a 24-7 job.” It must be an ever-present consideration and a top priority that every worker must understand, he said. 

However, ensuring that plant workers will always adhere to safety protocols is often complicated by changes in company ownership, employee turnover, and bridging expectation gaps, he said. 

At Gavin, for example, a plant that American Electric Power sold in 2017 to Lightstone, a joint venture between private equity firms Blackstone and AcrLight, plant management shifted safety strategies to adapt to Lightstone’s smaller corporate structure. One “pro in a con” that the plant faced was that there was less of an “overhead structure,” which made it easier to enact change. But it also pushed the company to depend more on third-party services for specific needs, Mullins said. Because the plant began operation in 1973, some safety awareness was also lost when several long-term staff opted for early retirement when the plant was sold, he said. 

“The problem with losing that history is losing” the opportunity to leverage their long-term knowledge of why decisions were made at the plant, he said. “It makes me nervous because of times, a lot of younger folks might be less experienced folks. It makes it tough when you’re talking about changing the culture.” 

Company Change Complicates Cultural Change

Michael Schimmelpfennig, principal engineer with Ameren, agreed, noting historical perspective also played a role in amplifying the importance of safety goals. “Go back like 15 years ago and our safety record was just horrible. Trying to change the culture has been a 15-year effort to get to where we are today, which is hugely different,” he said. But at Ameren, which is a large company, challenges also entailed getting senior management and plant workers to find consensus on safety cultural change, he said. 

Cyrus Tilford, fire safety leader for the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) also pointed to broad company changes as hurdles. NPPD is currently going “through a pretty big turnover right now in operations that’s going to require additional training to get all the guys caught up, because we’ve lost so many, so much knowledge about the plant,” he said. 

Common Themes for a Good Safety Culture

Despite their different management situations, the safety leaders highlighted several common factors that contribute to good safety culture. 

Being Realistic About Expectations. Perhaps the most important consideration, as Mullins noted, is that cultural change takes time. “The people above us sometimes forget that you can’t change a culture instantly. I’ve heard people say that it you do it in five years, you’re a pretty good company. If you do it in seven years, you’re probably still decent,” he said. Cultural change touches all parts of a company’s organization, and it matters how long plant managers have been at a facility, he said. “When you change plant managers, you start to change philosophies,” but that also affects worker expectations about how things will be run.   

Frequently Touching Base With Workers About Safety Issues.  Mullins said that Gavin holds monthly meetings between plant management and the unions to discuss “things that are coming, or things that will be changing.” Lightstone also has a “simple Safety Council,” which is a group of union and management members that focuses specifically on cultural change. These types of collaboration can promote solutions that are workable and that have more impact, Mullins said. 

Moving Toward a ‘Just’ Culture. A just culture is essentially a concept that emphasizes that mistakes are generally a product of a faulty organizational culture, rather than the mistake of a single individual. It requires thinking about accidents differently, Mullins said. One way to test that is to address an accident via a “substitution method,” whereby you ask whether a peer might have done the same thing, he explained. Also important is to treat injuries, accidents, or near-misses as “learning opportunities,” he said. 

Addressing Organizational Disconnect.  Schimmelpfennig, who holds a plant management position, suggested bridging the “disconnect” between management and workers can be helpful. “I personally try to make it a point to go out to plants, meet with equipment operators, meet with our laborers, talk to them and find out what is on their mind, what are they seeing, what problems they deal with, and hurdles they have to overcome.” The approach has been useful to understand safety issues, big and small, he said, and it also helps to establish a strong line of communication between “senior management and the guys in the trenches,” he said. 

Leverage a Comprehensive Third-Party Audit. Another way to gauge unseen gaps within the organizational chain is to commission a third-party audit that would survey every employee by email, said Tilford. 

Ensuring Contractors Have Matching Safety Philosophies. Mullins said Gavin holds sizable quarterly meetings with contractor superintendents, general foremen, and business agents to help establish and re-establish expectations. “Basically the conversations go: ‘We need you, we want you, but if you can’t work safely, you can’t work here.’ ” Reinforcing that message through management channels can also be helpful, he said. 

Reinforce Safety Culture Values Through Policies and Procedures. Owing in part to the changing workforce, the leaders agreed that laying out key values in policies and procedures could help ensure they are followed over the long term. Schimmelpfennig, however, noted that large companies can be so “procedure and policy rich,” it can sometimes prove overwhelming. Tilford agreed, noting that keeping up with documentation in an ever-changing environment may require hiring people whose full-time job is to update policies and procedures. 

Establishing an Open and Detailed Safety Record. Another way to share safety ongoings—as well as to share achievements, incidents, and lessons learned—is through a weekly report to all staff, Tilford said. NPPD has “an email that goes out to everybody. They can review it, understand it, and just be aware of the situation that happens every week,” he said. 

Likewise, Mullins said Gavin uses a SharePoint site to track all injuries. “Every time something goes into it, it sends it out to every one of our employees automatically. The expectations are the first-line supervisor will review it at the next job briefing,” he said.  

Ensuring Safety Reporting Is Not Penalized. Schimmelpfennig noted Ameren has a similar policy to explain even small accidents, which would, for example, require first aid. Crucially, it is important to encourage reporting, he said. There should be “no penalty for reporting an issue or a problem, or something that happened,” he said. 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).

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