Signing the safety charter at the right time

BC Hydro's Chris O'Riley. Photo credit: Arne Huse/FIOSA-MIOSA

BC Hydro’s Chris O’Riley. Photo credit: Arne Huse/FIOSA-MIOSA

It was candid, sad, and inspiring. Chris O’Riley, BC Hydro’s Executive VP of Generation, spoke at the BC Safety Charter Annual Roundtable on May 1, 2014 in Burnaby, BC, and told delegates why Hydro waited until 2013 to sign the Charter.

They could have done so in 2011, when the first 22 CEOs and senior executives signed the Charter to show their commitment to safety leadership. But at the time, the organization wasn’t yet ready to sign because their safety record was “horrendous” – as he put it.

“We’re seeing progress but we’re far from finished,” he said, describing how things have changed. “The severity of accidents is lower, but we’re still not where we want to be.”

O’Riley talked about the 2010 death of an employee who died after touching a live wire in a substation in Cranbrook. This tragedy was part of a terrible trend in which BC Hydro was experiencing a fatality or serious injury every six months, according to Hydro’s 2013 Annual Report.

Front-line workers – who represent about a third of Hydro’s 1500 employees – work in a high-hazard environment with very high voltages. Corrective measures tended towards a “blame and train” response, O’Riley said, but ultimately the organization needed to learn more about systemic factors that led to tragedy.

That’s why the BC Hydro Safety Taskforce was formed and given a broad mandate to find out “Why were we having these incidents at such an alarming frequency?” Their discovery process included consultation with front-line employees and visiting other organizations who were “all doing something interesting with safety.” Within eight months, they drafted 19 recommendations voted in by Hydro’s Board of Directors and accepted with consensus by union and management across the organization.

O’Riley said the recommendations fall into two broad areas: improving safety culture and strengthening safety management by way of a new structure for their joint health and safety committee.

“Employees have internalized the need to be safe, even if no one is watching,” O’Riley said. “One guiding theme of all of this is listening to our front line workers.”

Other solutions include more near-miss reporting, employee engagement surveys, and using the safety by design approach, which I wrote about recently in my post Building safety by design.

“We found that when you identify hazards early in the design process, the solution is usually free,” said O’Riley.


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