ABC’s of Power Plant Safety

Scott, Toby and I were all sitting in the front seat of Scott’s pickup truck on our way home from the coal-fired power plant in North Cental Oklahoma,  because this particular pickup didn’t have a back seat.  I guess that’s true for most pickup now that I think about it.  It was in the fall of 1993 and I was on one of my rants about Power Plant Safety (again).

Scott Hubbard was focusing on the road and he was smiling.  I think it was because the person that was talking on NPR (National Public Radio) had a pleasant voice.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

Come to think of it… Scott was usually smiling.

I was going on and on about how the plant needed to take a completely didn’t approach to safety.  I thought that we just looked at each accident as an isolated case and because of that we were missing the point.  The point was that no one really goes to work with the idea that they want to do something that will hurt them.  Power Plant Men in general don’t like having accidents.  Not only does it hurt, but it is also embarrassing as well.  Who doesn’t want that 20 year safety sticker?

I worked 20 years without an accident

I worked 20 years without an accident

I was in the middle of my safety rant all prepared to continue all the way from the plant to Stillwater, about 20 miles away when Toby quickly interrupted me.  He said that he had received a safety pamphlet in the mail the other day that was saying the same things I had just said.  It had talked about a way to change the culture of the plant to be more safe.  Not using the same old techniques we were used to like Safety Slogan Programs (I was thinking…. but what about the Safety Slogan Pizza award at the end of the year?  Would that go away?  See the Post:  “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“).  Toby said that he read it and then set it aside as just another one of the many safety sales pitches a Plant Engineer might receive in a week.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer – Toby O’Brien

He said he only remembered the pamphlet because I had just made a statement that was word-for-word right out of the safety pamphlet.  I had said that the only way to change the Power Plant Safety Culture was to change the behavior first.  Don’t try to change the culture in order to change the behavior.  When I had earned my degree in Psychology years earlier, I had been told by one of my professors that the area of Psychology that works the best is Behavioral Psychology.

To some, this might sound like treating the symptoms instead of the actual cause of a problem.  If your not careful that may be what you end up doing and then you ignore the root of the problem, which brings you back to where you were before you tried to change anything in the first place.  Toby said he would give the pamphlet to me the next day.

So, the rest of the ride home was much more pleasant.  Instead of finishing my rant about Safety, we just listened to the pleasant voices on National Public Radio.  I was excited about the idea that someone might have a solution that I believed offered the best chance to change the direction of Safety at the plant away from blaming the employee, to doing something to prevent the next accident.

The next day, after we arrived at the plant, I made my way up to the front offices to Toby’s desk so that he could give me the safety pamphlet he had mentioned on the ride home.  When he gave it to me, the title caught my eye right away.  It was a pamphlet for a book called:  “The Behavior-Based Safety Process, Managing Involvement for an Injury-Free Culture”.  Now I was really excited.  This sounded like it was exactly what I had been talking about with Toby and Scott.  I sent off for the book right away.

When the book arrived I wanted to climb on the roof of my house and yell “Hallelujah!”  I was suddenly one with the world!  As I read through the book my chin became chapped because my head was nodding up and down in agreement so much that the windy draft caused by the bobbing motion chafed my chin.

I finished the book over the weekend.  When I returned to work on Monday, I wrote another quick letter to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman and the Assistant Plant Manager, Ben Brandt telling them that I would like to discuss an idea for a new safety program…. um…. process.   Process is better than Program… as we learned in Quality Training.  A process is the way you do something.  A program is something you do, and when it’s over, you stop doing it.

Later that week, I met with Ron Kilman, Ben Brandt and Jasper Christensen in Ben’s office.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

I had just read the book for the second time, I had already had 5 dreams about it, and I had been talking about it non-stop to Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard in the electric shop for days.  So, I felt confident that I was prepared for the meeting.  I still remember it well.

Ron asked me to explain how this new process would work and so I started right in….

In order for this process to work, you have to understand that when an accident occurs, it is the system that is broken.  It isn’t the employee’s “fault”.  That is, the employee didn’t wake up in the morning thinking they were going to work today to have an accident.  Something went wrong along the way, and that is what you have to focus on in order to improve safety.  Not so much the employee, but the entire system.

If people are unsafe, it is because “The System” has trained them to work unsafe (for the most part…. — there will always be someone like Curtis Love…. accidents sometimes traveled 45 miles just to attack Curtis Love).

The trick is to identify the problems with the system, and then take steps to improve them.  Ben was nodding as if he didn’t quite buy what I was saying.  Ron had looked over at Ben and I could tell that he was skeptical as well (as I knew they would, and should be…. I had already demonstrated that I was a major pain in the neck on many occasions, and this could have been just another attempt to wreak havoc on our plant management).  So Ron explained a scenario to me and asked me how we would go about changing the system to prevent these accidents in the future….

Ron said, Bill Gibson went down to work on the Number 1 Conveyor Belt (at the bottom of the dumper where the coal is dumped from the trains).

Bill Gibson

Bill Gibson

While he was down there, he noticed that some bolts needed to be tightened.  The only tool he had with him that could possibly tighten the bolts was a pair of Channel Locks.

 

Channel Locks

Channel Locks

All of us had a pair of Channel Locks.  One of the most Handy-dandiest Tools around.

Ron continued…. So, instead of going back to the shop and getting the correct size wrench to tighten the bolts, Bill used the channel locks to tighten them.  He ended up spraining his wrist.  Now how are you going to prevent that?

I replied…. One of the most common causes for accidents is using the wrong tool.  There are usually just a few reasons why the wrong tool is used.  If you fix those reasons, then you can prevent this from happening.  The main and obvious reason why this accident occurred was because the right tool wasn’t there with him.  This could be fixed a number of ways.  Bill and his team could have a small bag that they carry around that had the most likely tools they might need for inspecting the conveyors.  They might have another bag of tools that they use when they need to go inspect some pumps… etc.

Another solution may be to mount a box on the wall at the bottom of the dumper and put a set of wrenches and other important tools in it.  If that box had been there and Bill had found the loose bolts, he only would have to walk a few feet to get the right tool instead of trudging all the way back up to the shop and then all the way back down.

It wasn’t that Bill didn’t want to use the right tool.  He didn’t want to bruise his wrist.  He just wanted to tighten the bolts.

— This had their attention…  I was able to quickly give them a real action that could be taken to prevent a similar accident in the future if they would take the effort to change the “System”.  Even Ben Brandt leaned back in his chair and started to let his guard down a little.

This was when I explained that when someone does something, the reason they do it the way they do is comes down to the perceived consequences of their actions…

We were always being drilled about the ABC’s of First Aid from Randy Dailey during our yearly safety training.  That is when you come across someone lying unconscious, you do the ABC’s by checking their Airway, the Breathing and their Circulation.  I introduced Ron, Ben and Jasper to the ABC’s of Safety.  Something completely different.  The ABC’s of Safety are:  Antecedents, Behavior and Consequences.

An Antecedent is something that triggers a particular behavior.  In Bill’s case, it was finding the loose bolts on Conveyor 1.  It triggered the behavior to tighten the bolts.  Bill chose to use the wrong tool because the correct tool was not immediately available, so he weighed the consequences.  The possible behavior choices were:

  • I could use the pair of channel locks here in my pocket.
  • I could spend the next 20 minutes climbing the 100 feet up out of the dumper and go over to the shop and grab a wrench and walk all the way back down here.
  • I could leave the bolts loose and come back later when I have the right tool.

The consequences of these behaviors are:

  • I could be hurt using the channel locks, but I haven’t ever hurt myself using them before, and the chances are small.
  • I could be late for lunch and I would be all worn out after climbing back up to the shop.  The chances of me being all worn out by the time I was done was very high.
  • The loose bolts could fail if I waited to tighten them, and that could cause more damage to the equipment that would cause a lot more work in the future.  The chance of this is low.

The behavior that a person will choose is the one that has an immediate positive consequence.  If the odds of being hurt is small, it will not stop someone from doing something unsafe.  Also, if the negative consequence is delayed, it will not weigh in the decision very highly.  Positive consequences outweigh negative consequences.

So, in this case, the obvious choice for Bill was to use the channel locks instead of going back to get the right tool.

When I finished explaining this to Ron and Ben, (Jasper was nodding off to sleep at this point)… Ben asked where I came up with all of this.  That was when I reached down and picked up the book that was sitting in my lap.  I put it on the table.  I said, I read about it in here:

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process by Thomas Krause

Ben grabbed the book and quickly opened up the front cover and saw that I had written my name inside the cover.  He said, “It’s a good thing you put your name in here or you would have just lost this book.”  I told him he could read it if he wanted.

Ron said that he would consider what I had said, and a few day later he responded that since I had been requesting that we start up a Safety Task Force to address the plant safety concerns that he would go ahead and let us start it up, and that he wanted us to consider starting a Behavior-Based Safety Process in the future.  — That will be another story…

Let me finish this post with a warning about the Behavior-Based Safety Process…

In order for this to work, it has to be endorsed from the top down, and it has to be implemented with the understanding that the employee is not the problem.  Punishing employees for working unsafe will destroy any attempt to implement this process properly.  Training everyone is essential.  Especially management.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  In order to produce an accident-free culture, everyone has to keep it positive.  Any chances in the system that helps prevent accidents is a good thing.  Any unsafe behavior by an employee is a symptom that there is something wrong with the system that needs to be addressed.  — Reprimanding an employee is destructive… unless of course, they intentionally meant to cause someone harm.  — But then, they wouldn’t really be Power Plant Men, would they?

The phrase was:  'Cause I Love You Man!

The phrase was: ‘Cause I Love You Man!

 

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9 responses

  1. Reblogged this on Dead Citizen's Rights Society.

  2. My father always made a box or a rack do that every tool needed to adjust something like a table saw was always attached to that saw. I do the same thing.

    1. That’s a great habit. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I really enjoyed your post. I’ve never worked in a power plant (no hand eye coordination, for one thing), but the challenge of convincing management to focus on safety and change an existing procedure is universal. Best wishes!

    1. Thanks Anna! I appreciate your comment.

  4. Great post. I worked at a Ford UAW plant for 28 years. We finished out with four years without a lost time injury – this plant was heavy machining manufacturing automotive steering gears so we had a lot of heavy equipment everywhere. Walking out the door the same way and with the same body parts you came in with will be our greatest legacy!

    By the way, thanks for the ‘like’ at my blog. The welcome mat is always out!

    1. Thanks Dennis! I enjoy reading your posts as well.

  5. I’m the powerplant nightshift foreman with 31 accident free years, yet my hardhat sticker says 26 years, so I went to our safety guy to find out why the “sticker” program had been dropped. He did some research & found out that about a half dozen years ago, corporate accountants did a cost/benefit analysis of our hardhat safety stickers & could see no “profit” in it 😦

    1. Amazing! I wonder if they see any value in paying their employees.

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