O&M, Plant Optimization

Next Evolution of Plant Safety

Issue 7 and Volume 122.

Next Evolution of Plant Safety

The American Society of Safety Engineers reports workplace safety has plateaued over the last decade. This is true of the power industry, although significant strides have been made to protect workers. However, the industry cannot claim victory until we can drive the injury rate to zero.

Safety performance is heightened during plant outages, both planned and forced. At peak activity, it is common for plants to have hundreds of contract workers on site. Top contractors with experienced workers bring industry best practices that enhance a plant’s safety culture. This is when an owner knows it has the right partner, one with aligned culture and values, and a comprehensive training program.

The next evolution of plant safety will be driven by increased engagement of plant workers, the use of data and technology to drive behaviors and a strengthening of cultures that prioritize safety above all.

Start at the Top

Leadership may be the most influential factor in driving safety performance. The best-performing safety organizations typically have a great leader at the helm. What separates top performers from the rest of the pack is often the “it factor,” an intangible quality that draws people in and inspires them to do their best work.

This “it factor” comes down to a leader’s ability to engage and empathize with others. The best leaders don’t sit in their offices all day making plans and looking over budgets. They get to know their people. They engage with their workforce to make sure they have the resources they need. They work hard to get an understanding of the specific roles of all the people within their organization. In plant operations, this translates to making sure that leaders are out in the field on a regular basis. There’s nothing quite as powerful for a frontline worker as seeing a site VP or company executive walking a site to see work being done and talking with craft. It shows them you care and makes them want to work harder. By fostering high level of engagement from workers, safety will improve.

This isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that will continue to be important if safety performance is going to improve. Organizations cannot lose sight of the fact that the people they put at the top will be a driving force of their overall success.

Care to Coach

The manager role means different things to different people. Some believe it’s a manager’s job to tell other people what to do. The truth is, a good manager is a coach who cares about the team. Think about sporting events you have attended. There is constant encouragement, feedback, and instruction. Coaches do this because they want the players to improve. We should think about employees and safety in the same way.

The research supports this approach. Zenger Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, did a study of a large energy organization and found that employees that expressed that they received good coaching from their managers had employee commitment scores in the 88th percentile of survey respondents. This is critical to safety success, particularly during outages, when you’re often dealing with a transient workforce. It’s important that managers and supervisors take this part of their job seriously. As plant operators and contractors look to improve safety performance in the future, shifting the mindset of leaders from managers to coaches will be critical.

Use Data to Avoid Risk

We are on the precipice of a data revolution in the construction industry. Today’s technology enables us to gather real-time information on plant and worker performance that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Some of the impacts of this shift are already being felt. Today, when an injury occurs on a plant site, alert systems are in place to notify critical personnel and executive leadership almost immediately. These communications give leaders the ability to address issues quickly and appropriately. We now have data to help prevent future injuries.

The data tells us a great deal about workplace behaviors, including near misses, good catches and interventions. Top performing organizations discuss accident and injury prevention, and analyze near misses and good catch trends to find a way to reinforce safe behaviors. The industry should look at its most “error-likely tasks” for the week. Based on that data, the activities with the highest probability for something to go wrong is identified. By giving those situations attention, the chances of accidents decrease. This is where the future of safety data and performance is headed.

Embrace a Zero Injury Mindset

While outage durations are a key performance indicator, worker safety and productivity are not mutually exclusive. The fact is a safe workplace is a productive workplace. Research from Rockwell Automation shows plants in the top 20 percent of overall equipment effectiveness have injury frequency rates 18 times lower than average performers and 60 times lower than poor performers.

A company with a strong safety culture is one that always puts worker safety first and is willing to stop work to address workers’ concerns. A culture where no one – not foremen, not superintendents, not even executives – resist being told when they are doing something that might be unsafe.


John McCormick is vice president of Fossil Operations