Building, Maintaining A Successful Safety/Damage Prevention Program


EDITOR’S NOTE: In recent years, much public attention has been focused on worker safety in the sometimes hazardous working conditions of underground condition. In fact “DPS” or damage prevention and safety, has become somewhat of a buzzword for companies touting their commitment to safety.

But talking about safety and being truly committed to that concept is another matter. Contractors and owning companies who have established and maintained an effective and successful DPS program have taken great effort to create a culture of safety within their companies. The benefits are plentiful and often undervalued, ranging from human safety, elimination of property damage and reduced insurance costs. The risk of not having a quality DPS program can be catastrophic.

In this issue of Underground Construction, we decided it was time to stress the positive accomplishments of the underground industry in the arena of damage prevention and safety, rather than the often tear-jerking disasters we see on the evening news. Fortunately, we found most companies today take safety seriously. Senior Editor Jeff Griffin talked with four companies (one owner and three contractors) about their approach to developing and maintaining a culture of safety within their companies.

As Michigan’s largest utility provider, Consumers Energy provides natural gas and electric service to 6.6 million of the state’s 10 million residents, and the company’s safety and damage prevention efforts must address multiple challenges that include:
• Protecting company employees who construct and maintain power and gas transmission and distribution systems plus contractor crews hired for projects;
• Protecting the public and preventing damage to the company’s extensive gas and power infrastructure;
• Educating customers and the general public about the safe use of electricity and gas; and
• Safeguarding the environmental integrity of the company’s extensive land holdings.

Consumers Energy construction and maintenance crews are in the field on a daily basis, and they receive continuing safety training. In addition, the company must ensure contractors working on Consumers projects operate in accordance with company safety policies and procedures.

“Safety is the foundation of everything we do,” said Dirk R. Dunham, compliance assurance director – gas programs. “Our executive management takes responsibility for ensuring we have an effective safety program in place and that it is communicated to our key internal audiences – employees and subcontractors, as well as external stakeholders, customers, excavators, governmental officials, media and the general public. You can’t have an effective, successful safety program without addressing both.

“Our current damage prevention program was created in 1999 following a series of incidents. We established field supervisors to focus on protecting our facilities and supervise damage prevention efforts. In addition we partnered with other utilities, contractors and damage prevention stakeholders within the state to form the Michigan Damage Prevention Board (MDPB). The MDPB works to establish a consistent understanding of safe digging practices for all excavators, stakers and utilities.

“Since ’99, our damage rate has dropped every year.”

Basic elements of Consumers’ program include:

• Establishing the comprehensive program, including identification of potential risks;
• Creating benchmarks to measure the effectiveness of the program; and
• Developing strategies in four areas: identifying potential conflicts early in engineering and planning stages, public awareness of One-Call and safe digging, field response to staking requests, and investigation of incidents that occur to identify causes to reduce risks of future accidental strikes.

Always communicate

Communication is the essential element in the company’s damage prevention and safety efforts, Dunham emphasizes. Consumers Energy works with other utilities, Miss Dig (the state’s One-Call organization) and other organizations. Each year, the company launches a Dig Safely campaign in April that continues throughout the year to raise awareness of the need to call Miss Dig and follow proper digging procedures.

The campaign includes state of Michigan legislation to proclaim April as Dig Safely Month, special events designed to draw media coverage, television and radio public service announcements (also used during storm situations) and other related activities. The Dig Safely campaign is modeled after recommendations from the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), of which Consumers Energy was a founding member.

Another key element to reduce damages, Dunham said, was to establish a team of safety liaison employees who are dedicated to working in the field with contract staking crews throughout the utility’s service territory. Their primary focus is to emphasize quality work, accuracy in locating facilities, and timeliness of completing staking with contractors. The team also provides gas and electric safety training for fire departments.

Investigation of incidents to determine root causes and analyzing how safety procedures can be improved is essential to safety and damage prevention programs.

Company statistics are shared with the CGA’s Damage Incident Reporting Tool (DIRT), a secure web application for the collection and reporting of underground damage information. DIRT allows users to submit damage and near miss reports; browse files submitted by the user’s organization; administer role-based company and user information; edit personal profiles; and submit feedback and questions.

Equally important are the company’s efforts to keep employees safe on the job and to integrate the focus on safety.

“We believe,” Dunham said, “that all employees have the responsibility to hold themselves and their peers accountable for compliance with company safety rules.”

In May 2005, management and union leaders launched a historic joint initiative to radically transform Consumers Energy’s safety performance. This led to the formation of the Safety Culture Transition Team (SCTT). Team members are responsible for identifying cultural issues and developing programs to move the culture in a positive direction.”

A key focus of the SCTT is development of a safety organization responsible for addressing any issues that arise within the teams’ areas of responsibility.

Stop the job

One tool that employees are embracing more is the Stop the Job: Take a Timeout for Safety initiative.
“Management and union leader’s stress that anybody from a rookie to 30-year-plus veterans should feel comfortable in stopping any job,” said Dunham. “Both management and union leaders are consistent in their message that while customer service and productivity are important, working safely is always number one.”

In the event of safety incidents, Safety Flash and Safety Bulletin e-mails keep employees informed, as does the company’s monthly Connect newsletter. State-of-the-art digital television monitors were also installed at all company headquarters locations to share topical safety and company news.

The company has employed several special methods and approaches to reduce safety incidents, including the Slippery Surface Simulator, a state-of-the art tool used to train employees that recently became part of Consumers Energy’s block training. Use of this simulator is expected to reduce the company’s number one cause of injuries: slips and falls.

After the 2012 death of an electric line worker who was hit by a vehicle when responding to a downed power line, a grassroots team was formed and became the impetus behind the Michigan legislature passing a Utility Worker Safety Awareness Day. The team continues to actively pursue other ways to encourage drivers to “slow down and go around” workers on or near roadways.

Consumers emphasizes safety is a 24/7 effort, not only at work, but also at home and at play, recognizing good safety habits away from the job are carried over to the workplace. Safety Fairs around the state are conducted by local Safety and Health Guidance Teams.

The payoff for these efforts is reduced accident rates.

In 2012, the American Gas Association honored Consumers Energy with a Safety Achievement Award for lowest DART (Days Away, Restricted or Transferred Rate) incident rate.

Strengthening of Michigan’s Miss Dig One-Call legislation passed in late November 2013 by the state legislature will have a positive effect protecting the underground utility infrastructure, believes Dirk R. Dunham, Consumers Energy compliance assurance director – gas programs.

Among its provisions, he said, is elimination of broad exemptions to the law, stipulation that fines for violations go to fund additional training and provides that offenders may be required to provide additional excavation safety training at their own expense.

Perhaps most important, the law provides for enforcement, which previous legislation did not contain.

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