When you work in the utility industry and lose a close friend and coworker, it is an experience you will never forget. Years ago, I remember when two linemen made electrical contact and one did not make it.

The crew was setting poles and laying out phases to reconductor a piece of line. This six-man crew was going to work on the last pole and then go home for the weekend. The only major hazard on the job was a 12,470-V phase-to-phase overhead line. The crew knowingly positioned their truck under the line to avoid setting up on a busy road.

In retrospect, they could have stopped and discussed the hazard, assigned a spotter to ensure the boom stayed out of the minimum approach distance, grounded the truck or covered the lines. Unfortunately, they did none of these things. Shortly after they started work, the boom contacted the overhead line as the men were pulling the material off the truck. Both received an electrical contact, and we lost a fellow lineman that day.

I recently read that less than one-fourth of those who see concerns speak up about them. That could not be more true than in the utility industry. The “Peer Principle” study, published in the May 2010 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, stated that 93% of employees see urgent risks to life and limb, yet 75% of them wait for bosses or others to take action. The study went on to find, however, that accountability appeared to be the key to safety. The culture of accountability had little to do with bosses and a lot to do with peers. According to the study, peer accountability turned out to be a predictor of performance at every level and on every dimension of achievement.

The study stated: “The differences between good companies and the best weren't that apparent when it came to bosses holding direct reports accountable. The differences become stark, however, when you examine how likely it is that a peer will deal with a concern.”

The key question for linemen in the utility industry, then, is how can you foster peer-to-peer accountability on your field crew? Here is a four-step model that can be used as a road map for our future safety success. Remember, this new research clearly shows that top-level safety performance is reached through peer-to-peer accountability, which is the same as feedback. So, our goal must be to employ a model that results in feedback-driven accountability between peers.

  1. Put it in a procedure

    We write procedures on everything, from rubber-gloving to overtime rotation. Why wouldn't we write a procedure on what organizational accountability would look like and the steps it takes to get there? Within that procedure, we want to define, make a clear picture of peer-to-peer feedback, put measurement tools in place, consider incentive pay arrangements and integrate a peer-to-peer skill set in new-hire evaluations.

  2. Practice it

    Our industry has developed a sit-and-listen culture, not a culture where peer-to-peer exchanges are not only encouraged, but practiced on a daily or weekly basis. The best way to practice it is to infuse your current sit-and-listen activities like safety meetings, job planning sessions and company meetings with interactive components.

  3. Pattern it

    For the most part, we have a boss-driven form of accountability, and this has garnered some results. In most cases this “boss” is the first-line supervisor, and it is his or her role to hold employees accountable. However, given this research, the new role of a supervisor is to make sure his direct reports are “patterning” peer-to-peer feedback. One supervisory skill that will become important is the ability to evaluate if peer-to-peer feedback is happening, and if it is not, apply coaching skills to make it happen.

  4. Pitch it

    After we have written a formal procedure, infused our companies with systematic ways to practice peer-to-peer feedback and patterned this concept for our organization, we should monitor it for a year. When our utility has embraced it, we should then pitch the procedure. We are not building a bureaucracy of paper and procedure, but we are working to keep our linemen safe. We want a true cultural change.

In closing, think about this story: A committee was appointed that consisted of four persons: Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. An important job came up, and the committee agreed that Everybody should be asked to do it. Everybody, however, was sure that Somebody would do it, and they all knew that Anybody could do it. But, alas, Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job, and Everybody thought Anybody could do it. But Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it. So, it ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when actually Nobody asked Anybody.

Will Anybody start peer-to-peer feedback in your organization? Everybody can do it, maybe Somebody will do it, but it is our job to make sure it gets done, and Nobody gets hurt.

Matt 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. Today, as the president of K-Crof Industries, he speaks and consults on utility safety. Learn more at www.thesafetysoul.org.