Like other electric utilities, Entergy Arkansas had its share of OSHA recordable incidents. In 2007, the company reported 18 incidents and two years later, the company documented a total of 29 accidents. While this was in line with the industry average, the subsidiary of Entergy Corp. felt like there was room for improvement.

Last year, the utility had its best safety record in history by logging the least amount of OSHA recordable incidents. To make this change, management first focused on enforcement. Supervisors and safety specialists were charged with enforcing the rules; discipline ranged from a verbal warning to suspension to termination, depending on the severity of the offense.

This singular approach, however, failed to have the desired result. Safety incidents moved up slightly as did formal grievances, and morale of the workforce took a nosedive. As enforcers handed out citations in increasing number and severity, many linemen complained they were afraid to work at all because the rules were too complex and, sometimes, ambiguous, to be followed to the letter.

Periodic face-to-face meetings between frontline employees and company management revealed declining morale, even among supervisors. Trying to change work practices by simply enforcing existing rules was clearly not the answer. What was needed was a change from within.

No one disputed that avoiding accidents was in everyone's best interest. The question was how to get there. The proposal that grew out of the study was to place the problem in the hands of those most equipped to solve it: the employees.

Linemen Coaching Linemen

To get the field workforce involved in the safety program, Entergy Arkansas launched the Coach-Observer Program in 2009. A steering committee representing linemen, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and all levels and departments, including management, defined the criteria of leadership and craftsmanship for the union business managers to use to select the 10 linemen who would devote half of their working hours to visiting job sites around Arkansas. Their task was to observe their fellow linemen working, compliment them on what they're doing right and, when necessary, coach them on what they might be doing wrong.

They then reported their observations and findings to Somerville Partners, a consulting firm that specially developed an online database to capture the safety issues observed, coached and corrected, without capturing employee names. The firm then compiled results to identify trends and areas on which coach-observers and management should focus.

Here are four ways that the program helped to improve the safety program at the utility.

  1. Instill freedom from fear of discipline

    The program was focused on linemen helping linemen in a nonthreatening environment. “At first, some of the guys thought we might be spies for the company,” said Larry Berry, one of the first 10 coach-observers who is now retired. “But after we did our first round of visits, the word got around that we're out there to help.”

  2. Focus on workers' behavior

    Somerville Partners helped guide the discussions, adding insights into the psychological aspects of behavioral-based safety. For instance, the committee determined that it would be important to focus on precursors to incidents and mistakes, rather than waiting until a violation or accident occurred.

  3. Improve work practices for efficiency and effectiveness. The coach-observers were encouraged to help their fellow linemen get better at their craft, and they did this in part by cross-pollinating the population with good ideas. They'd see one in one part of the state and then share it with the next work crew they visited.

  4. Give a sense of autonomy

    Coach-observers encouraged employees to use their own judgment, within the framework of safe work practices and rules, more than they previously thought they were allowed to. They gave employees the value of mastering one's craft and purpose.

Reaping Rewards

Due to the success of the program, the number of “Fatal Five” violations that could kill a lineman dropped 33% over four years. Also, between 2008 and 2012, the OSHA recordable accidents decreased by 30%.

The coach-observers have had a positive influence on Entergy Arkansas by advocating for safety rule changes and improving the relationship between linemen and management. They have become trusted counselors and educators, providing on-the-spot training and guidance in the field.

“We've always known our people had the training, desire and determination to truly make safety our top priority. I am thankful we came up with a feedback process that works for everybody, and I look forward to continued improvements in the days ahead,” said Brady Aldy, transmission and distribution operations director for Entergy Arkansas.

Audie Foret is a region manager for Entergy Arkansas' distribution operations organization and is in charge of this program.