When it comes to leadership, you can't take a one-size-fits-all approach. To be a successful leader in utility safety programs, you must coach to your audience. Leadership in this field must be earned, not by what is said, but instead by what is done consistently over time.

Below are five traits to leading utility safety, gaining respect and earning results.

  1. Show You Care

    Randy was a tough, hard to get to know son of a gun. He had more than 25 years of experience and didn't get along the best with the local management. I actually had worked with him when I was an apprentice.

    When I became a safety supervisor, I was responsible for 400 linemen, substation workers and gas employees in Missouri. Knowing that I couldn't see everyone in the course of a month, I decided to show them I cared in a different way.

    I met with our utility's human resources department and asked for everyone's birthdays so I could write each person a birthday note. For Randy, I said something like, “Happy Birthday. I really liked working with you back in the day. I always liked your funny stories. Work safe. From, Matt.” I sent it and forgot about it. About five years later, I happened to be in Randy's show up location. There on his locker with the pictures of his wife and kids was a faded piece of paper. I recognized it immediately as my note to him.

    Family counselor and author Josh McDowell wrote, “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.” If I needed to talk safety or enforce a rule with Randy, I'm confident he would have listened because he knew I cared. Care, so that when you need to talk safety, your audience will be more than willing to listen.

  2. Own It

    I have been in dozens, if not hundreds, of meetings where a lineman asked a safety question and the supervisor, safety committee chair or manager responded by saying, “Yeah, the safety department says we have to do it that way.” Blaming the safety department for a rule isn't owning it; it's the easy way out. With this response, your team knows that the rule in question is not important to you.

  3. Know Why

    There is no doubt that utility work is complicated. We ground, wear rubber gloves, use load-break tools, stick primary, and the list goes on and on. And, with every tool, rule and procedure, there is reason why.

    One of the best leaders I have ever worked with was named Joe. After serving in Vietnam, Joe was hired on with the local utility. Over time, he was promoted and found a home as an apprentice trainer. In this position, he became a leader in the entire company for one simple reason: he knew why. If you wanted to know why rubber blankets were tested but hard cover was not, Joe knew. If you wanted to know why OSHA requires a hot stick to be wiped down before each use, or how the minimum approach distance was determined, Joe could honestly tell you.

    Linemen, more times than not, will follow the rules if they only know why. If you can't remember “why,” then find the “Joe” in your organization so that when your workers ask, you can get a quick answer.

  4. Relate Work to Life

    I was blessed to work around a utility gas journeyman who always said, “It will happen. What matters is where you are when it happens.” His point was simple. Mechanical equipment fails and people make mistakes, thus bad things will happen. But, if you have taken the time to plan your work, follow safe work practices and wear the proper personal protective equipment when “it” happens, you will be okay.

  5. Jump In

    Tony was an award-winning safety professional. He was recognized by the safety profession as The Safety Professional of the Year in a large Midwest region. With nearly 20 years of experience in construction and manufacturing safety, Tony changed fields and came on board the safety staff of a major utility. The only problem was Tony didn't know a wheel check from a fused cutout. About three weeks after Tony started, Hurricane Dennis struck the Gulf Coast. To restore power, linemen from across the country blanketed the area. Tony was asked to accompany about 50 linemen on a three-week tour. He was nervous to go, because he didn't know many of the rules, but he went nonetheless. Tony spent every waking hour in the field with the linemen. With his safety manual in hand, he watched and asked questions. He put on a harness and went up in a bucket. He influenced safe choices not because he was the authority, but because he was willing to roll up his sleeves, be a part of the team and ask questions.

Many people who work in safety and management roles are directly supporting linemen who are not journeymen. Often, they face a high hurdle when it comes to gaining the respect and credibility of the “team,” since they didn't actually “play the sport.” In these cases, lead like Tony and jump in. You will be amazed at the results.

Matthew Forck (matt@mattforcksafetyspeaker.com), a certified safety professional, worked as a meter reader and journeyman lineman, and was a member of his utility's safety staff. As president of K-Crof Industries, he speaks and consults on utility safety.