Standing Room Only

Safety Committee Congresses at SDG&E and SoCalGas keep safety on the front burner.

THE number one cause of safety incidents isn't sprains, strains, repetitive motion injuries' or any other line item on a monthly incident report. It's a lack of commitment to safe work practices. No matter how you slice your safety statistics, virtually all injuries at any company are preventable with the right preparation and focus. Training is an obvious first step, but equally important is ensuring that employees consistently apply what they learn. For that to happen, you need a broad, ongoing campaign to make safety an integral part of the company culture.

At San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E) and Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas), two of Sempra Energy's regulated utilities, we help create that culture by conducting annual Safety Committee Congresses. Each congress offers a full day of programs, activities, and talks related to safety training for hundreds of employees. The congresses help to reinforce key safety principles, as well as the company's safety vision: "We never compromise safety and all take responsibility for safe and healthy behavior, leading to an incident-free lifestyle."

Strengthening Safety Committees
As with many companies with a large workforce and a broad geographical reach, SDG&E and SoCalGas depend on a network of safety committees to flag local safety issues and promote safe behaviors. Supporting these safety committees is the primary reason for our Safety Committee Congresses. These events pull together safety committee members throughout the company who have taken the initiative to assume a safety leadership role. The congresses are forums that provide them tools and motivate them to become effective safety champions in their local work areas.

In 2004, SoCalGas' congress attracted 550 employees and SDG&E's congress drew another 300--the majority of whom were safety committee members. Both congresses offered more than 35 one-hour safety workshops spread across four workshop sessions. By bringing together so many employees to a single event, the congresses offer several benefits. They attract a "critical mass" of resources, including company experts both inside and outside of Safety staff who volunteer to serve as trainers and facilitators. The abundance of workshops allows for a variety of topics, such as hand tool safety, personal protective equipment, back injury prevention, and "dog-gone dogs." Employees, in turn, are attracted to the diversity of the workshops; some of them travel hundreds of miles to attend.

The large size of the congress leverages another key opportunity: the sharing of ideas. The employees attending the workshops represent a diversity of jobs, departments, and work locations. We try to bring all these different perspectives into the workshop discussions to get the best solutions to safety issues. This is an excellent opportunity for employees to learn from one another and build a "safety network" throughout the company. We even push the process by requesting their input on "give-one/get-one" cards, which ask all participants to write down the three most important ideas they learn in each workshop and share them with their co-workers and safety committees when they return to their work locations. In this way, the congress is a special catalyst for generating ideas and for helping them take hold.

Uncovering Synergies
We've also realized other benefits that are less tangible but no less important. Now that SoCalGas has held six safety committee congresses in as many years, it's clear these events raise the profile of safety. For one thing, they are among the largest employee gatherings of the year. They are upbeat events with large general sessions during breakfast and lunch that include innovative games and speeches by executives and industry leaders--all captured on cameras and projected live onto big screens. They are featured in employee publications and promoted at work locations.

By raising the profile of safety, the congresses chip away at safety problem number one: that typical indifference that legitimizes the notion that "accidents happen." They help convince employees that safety is more than an item on a checklist; it is Job One, an integral part of everything we do and a value that demands changes in our basic behaviors.

Demonstrating Support
Obviously, a one-day event cannot produce a world-class safety record all by itself. But the congresses do leverage many other resources that promote safety. First on this list of resources for any company is a commitment from the chairman to the importance of safety. At SDG&E and SoCalGas, we're fortunate to have a chairman, Ed Guiles, who is our number one safety champion, and the congresses capitalize on that opportunity.

When he addresses the hundreds of employees at the general sessions, he does more than give the right safety messages (such as safety is a top priority, virtually all accidents are preventable, and you need to apply what you learn here). He tells them to call him personally if other employees resist their efforts to promote safe behaviors. At SDG&E's second safety committee congress last year, he even gave out his cellphone number--in a speech to 300 employees!

The congresses also emphasize the importance of our safety vision. While this vision reinforces the need for a cultural change, you can't change a culture with words alone. You need committed leaders who show their passion for an issue, and the congress is the forum of choice for taking a stand on safety.

At various times throughout the congresses, several executives follow our chairman's lead and speak out on the importance of safety. The union leadership shows its support, as well, providing its own speakers at the general sessions. We also point out the agreements between the companies and their unions on the role of safety committees. Employees see clearly that, when it comes to safety, both the company's and the unions' leaders are in lockstep.

Recognizing Employees
Also, because the congresses amplify our safety messages, why not do the same with safety recognition? We often reserve prime time at our general sessions to announce the winners of important safety awards, which recognize outstanding achievements by safety committees. The winning committees come to the front of the stage to be photographed with executives as they receive their awards.

The congresses also train safety committee members in another critical area: leadership development. These members are charged with nothing less than changing our culture, so they have to see themselves as effective leaders. That's why many of our workshops go beyond the technical side of safety and address the leadership side: "Feedback and Coaching," "Facilitation Skills," "Planning Effective Safety Committee Meetings," and "Communicating the Safety Vision to Your Committee."

Outside speakers add another dimension. We have had several effective keynote speakers at the general sessions to promote safety as a critical value. One year we invited Al Haynes, captain of United Airlines Flight 232, which crashed at an Iowa airport in 1989, killing 112 people on board. His recounting of the difficult landing carried powerful lessons in safety preparedness, including the need for open communications, teamwork, and a serious approach to safety training.

Staying Upbeat
The congresses also try to promote a "fun" side of safety, which always attracts greater involvement. We spice up the congresses with safety skits and a "Safety Jeopardy" game at the general sessions, complete with buzzers for the contestants and an electronic scoreboard. We encourage our safety committees to follow suit and be off-beat (or at least upbeat) when they hold their own safety committee meetings. As one of our past keynote speakers, Richard Hawke, noted during a general session, "We have this misconception that safety is boring. It's not--you're boring."

We always look for opportunities to improve the congresses. We change or cancel workshops that don't earn high marks from the feedback forms we receive every year. The feedback also leads to new workshops, such as "Stress Management," "Your Best Foot Forward," and "So, You're Not As Young As You Used To Be!" One employee, noting several executives would always come to the general sessions to show their support, suggested that they teach some workshops, as well. As a result, our congresses added a workshop called "Talk to the Boss about Safety," an open dialogue session for employees to raise any safety issues they want with executives. We plan to have other executives lead other seminars, which should raise the profile of safety even further.

A Stronger Commitment to Safety
When SoCalGas held its first safety committee congress in 1999, we had trouble attracting enough employees to reach our target attendance of 375. Five years later, we topped 500 and had to turn employees away. More important, the same enthusiasm about the congresses is showing up in safety committees, through greater numbers and greater dedication. And I'm not as nervous as I used to be when I review our monthly safety results.

SoCalGas' OSHA rate has dropped from 8.21 in 1998 to 6.19 in 2004, and its rate of controllable motor vehicle incidents has dropped from 4.99 to 3.50 during the same period.

It's always tempting to view a certain level of injuries as "baseline," "systemic," or with some other word that justifies them. But that doesn't change the fact that most of these injuries are entirely preventable. Working in tandem with in-line management, safety departments need to create an environment that encourages all employees to be accountable for incident prevention. While this is a safety department's hardest task, the key to success is to keep attacking the problem at the root--the company culture--which requires a relentless campaign that includes executive support, recognition of success, and a well-heeled network of safety committees. In our campaigns at SDG&E and SoCalGas, we've found Safety Committee Congresses to be a powerful part of our overall mix.

This article appears in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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