By Eric Wolfe
You’re at work. Somebody wants to pull out an underground cable using a truck because it’s faster than using a capstan. You know there’s a chance the cable could break and come whipping out of the hole. Not good.
So what do you do? Do you speak up?
When people take shortcuts, other members of the crew often turn their head because they don’t want to have a confrontation,” said Richard Danieli, a PG&E Transmission Troubleman and Local 1245 safety steward.
It can be hard to approach a fellow employee who is cutting corners. It’s especially hard to speak up if it’s about something you yourself might have done in the past, said Jon McCue, a safety steward and Line Foreman for Liberty Energy. You feel kind of like a hypocrite, saying ‘Hey man, don’t do that.’ ”
So what do you do?
That question was pondered long and hard by 82 members who attended a two-day Safety Summit at Weakley Hall on May 1-2 in Vacaville. They came from PG&E, NV Energy, Turlock Irrigation District, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the City of Redding, Frontier Communications, Davey Tree, Wright Tree and Trees Inc.
These members do different kinds of work–electric, gas, tree trimming, communications. But at one time or another, they’ve all seen the same problem: a worker taking a shortcut.
And shortcuts can send someone to the hospital, or to an early grave.
Start a Conversation
Over the past couple of years, Local 1245 has built a network of safety stewards to address a rash of workplace fatalities and serious injuries. Their purpose is not to scold rule breakers or set somebody up for disciplinary action. Their purpose is to keep people from getting hurt.
So what do you do when a crewmate takes an unnecessary risk? Try this: start a conversation.
There are ways of communicating that are non-toxic, that don’t promote anger,” said Local 1245 Business Rep Rich Lane, a former TID lineman who organized the conference. By taking a non-judgmental approach, you don’t put the other person on the defensive.”
Ron Martin, a communication specialist, explored the topic in some depth during the first day of the conference. His message: communication is a two-way street. It means listening as well as talking.
You’re going to be dealing with people who are not going to want to make a change, or don’t even recognize that something is wrong,” said Lane. You have to take the approach that, ‘I have a message for you, you have a message for me, let’s talk this over.’ ”
The safety steward is not a supervisor. Their goal is not to change behavior by a threat of punishment. The goal is to increase safety awareness on the job, and remind people that we all want to get home alive each day.
Making jobs safer
The hazards people face in this line of work are legion.
Everything’s dangerous,” said Rob Dinsmore, a line clearance tree trimmer with Wright Tree Service. You can fall. You can get hit by objects. You can cut yourself.”
You can also be electrocuted, gassed, injured in an explosion, hit by a car, attacked by animals–or by people who act like animals.
Ernie Peña knows. He was on his way to investigate a gas leak when an angry citizen–who happened to be the recipient of several PG&E shut-off notices–shot him with a 357. Peña survived, but was astonished to learn some months later that a co-worker was given the same tag just 20 minutes after Peña was shot.
Yes, supervisors can be part of the problem, and when they show poor judgment on safety matters there needs to be a conversation about it. But don’t expect to change their behavior by berating or scolding.
People commonly bring complaints to supervision and say ‘This is a wrong,’ but they don’t identify how to fix it or bring about a change,” said Lane. You’re more likely to get change if you can point out that the supervisor could get better results by following a different course.
It’s a lot like negotiating,” said Lane. A two-way street.
One Little Misstep
Sometimes safety issues are a result of wider company policies, something the supervisor may have little control over. Case in point: staffing. When you’re short-staffed, all those great overtime opportunities can start taking a toll.
When you’re exhausted, when you’re tired, you tend to forget, you tend to miss steps,” said Lington Gordon, a PG&E fieldman. One little misstep could cause an explosion, could cost a life or a limb.”
Union leaders have wrangled with PG&E, NV Energy and other employers through the years about staffing levels. Safety stewards, obviously, have little influence on their company’s staffing policies. But there are ways they can try to minimize the threat to safety. When there’s a ton of overtime, for example, they can remind members to recognize the signs of fatigue, and to not be shy about asking for help.
If you get tired you have a right to tell a supervisor, ‘I can’t drive that truck in,’ ” said Gordon. Point out to the supervisor it would be a hazard to the public as well as the employee to put a sleepy driver in a rig for a long drive back to the yard. You need to get someone to drive that rig, or park it here, drive me home.”
These are the sorts of things that safety stewards can bring up with their fellow members going into storm season. When summer’s on the horizon, said Gordon, you start talking about heat stroke.” Don’t be shy, he says. Just bring it up.”
Looking Out for Each Other
Utility jobs cannot be made completely safe. But they can be made safer, if people remain alert to the risks–and communicate.
Members of a crew already tend to look out for each other. One role of the safety steward is to reinforce that bond, help members keep sight of the fact that they hold each other’s lives in their hands.
I’m with them more than I am with my own family,” Danieli said of his union brothers. And sometimes we can’t stand each other–we fight like brothers. But at the end of the day I don’t want to see anybody…”
Danieli doesn’t need to finish the sentence. None of us wants to see anybody going to the mortuary instead of going home at night. Danieli names some of the brothers who didn’t make it home from work–Max and Felipe–and Brett, who lost his arms.
I knew those guys all personally, coming up together. It’s a brotherhood,” said Danieli.
Dane Moore, a PG&E Electric Crew Foreman, freely acknowledges he had wilder days as a young man. But at some point–marriage, kids–he got a new perspective. I decided to try and be safe and teach that for everyone.”
He isn’t sure exactly what it will take to help people make that transition from being a rule breaker, a risk taker.” But he told his fellow safety stewards at the safety summit that they had a responsibility to try.
I don’t want any more serious injuries. I love all you guys, I care about every one of you guys. I don’t want to see this anymore. We got to be our brothers’ keeper. We got to do it.”
For a fact, IBEW Local 1245 safety stewards don’t have all the answers. But they’re asking some of the right questions, starting important conversations, and looking for ways to be their brother’s keeper.
Local 1245 is continuing to build our network of safety stewards, and provides resources to those who volunteer to serve in this position. Besides training conferences like the May gathering in Vacaville, safety stewards are supported by the union’s three peer-to-peer safety committees: Hold the Pull (Electric), Control the Pressure (Gas), and Keep the Clearance (Tree Trimmers). If you are interested in being a safety steward, contact Rich Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org