• What Happens When Safety Isn’t a Glamorous Thing?

The leadership of an inherently high hazard company sacrificed the safety of its employees and community in pursuit of political goals.

‘Safety Is Not a Glamorous Thing’, headlined an article by Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold appearing in the Wall Street Journal last week, leading a story of misplaced priorities, a hazy idea of mission and an appalling absence of accountability that could only occur in an organization run by politicians for politicians.

The lessons that we as safety professionals can take from the story are direct and tangible. The article castigates the CPUC for not enforcing safety as a priority. This is the private sector equivalent of blaming OSHA for a company’s poor safety record stemming from indifference. Yes, OSHA should be there to educate companies and when necessary, enforce the rules. But every capable safety professional I know, and every good company with whom we work, knows that they are primarily responsible for their operating performance and safety record. And most of those companies do a good job of incorporating safety excellence with operations.

A Disturbing Perspective

The quote above was by Michael Peevey, the former president of Southern California Edison and CPUC president from 2002 to 2014.  A vocal champion of renewable energy, he said that compared with green energy, “Safety is not a glamorous thing”. This is a disturbing comment.

PG&E is not only responsible for the safety of its’ employees, but effectively responsible for the safety of all the residents of California. PG&E electrical equipment started more than one fire per day since 2014, and over 400 last year alone, and killed over 100 people during that time.

Running a safe organization requires a commitment to safety that starts at the top and is demonstrated in a visible, consistent manner through all levels of an organization. Effective safety programs are developed and managed in the context of a clear organization mission statement, and then executed in coordination with operations teams.

A Shining Example

I recently talked with the Safety Director of an oilfield services contractor who implemented a comprehensive stop-work policy across his entire company. Every worker has the right and authority to stop work on any project they feel to be unsafe until the issue is resolved.

The executives of this company recently had their resolve tested when they concluded that a large contract opportunity was simply too risky due to customer practices – they stopped work by turning down the contract. This reflects a strong safety culture and environment in which every employee, including the president, is willing to be held accountable for their safe operations.

Business and political pundits will write the story of the failures of both the utility and the California Public Utilities Commission. My guess is that the state’s politicians pressured PG&E to accept priorities that did not extend to ensuring that first and foremost the mission should be to provide safe, reliable and affordable power to the people of California. And that is a failure that can only be traced back to the management of the company.

By Thomas Carson

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