Established in 1941, East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC) generates energy for 16 distribution cooperatives that serve more than one million people. Working with energy has no shortage of challenges. In 2011, the nonprofit utility began making adjustments to achieve a more focused and more effective safety culture. The results transformed the company and are attributed to strong employee engagement and a growing leadership base. It also earned EKPC’s CEO, Tony Campbell, recognition among 2019 CEOs Who “Get It” by the National Safety Council.
Campbell credits EKPC’s success to strengthening its safety program eight years ago. That’s when he challenged Mike Willoughby, Manager of Safety, Security and Facilities, to come up with a plan to improve EKPC’s safety culture. Some of the significant safety advances made during those eight years have been:
- Engaging employees in every aspect of the safety program
- C-level involvement in safety discussions, and
- Making safety personal and relatable to employees
- Ensuring employee safety became a priority over production
- Increasing visual and other safety communication, utilizing digital technology, etc.
“One of the hardest things we had to do was getting all employees on board, especially the folks who had been with us a long time,” Willoughby said. “We had to completely change our culture.” Employee-based teams began focusing on things like cardinal rules, best practices for all procedures and cross-functional safety communication. It has taken time, commitment, and consistency, but the efforts are worth it, he said.
What really drove the message home for employees, Willoughby said, was Campbell’s complete support and his heartfelt message: You’re not working safe just for yourself; there are people who depend on you.
“Tony knew we had to emphasize that (safety-family) connection,” Willoughby said. That point evolved into the EKPC safety motto, “Safety is R.I.G.H.T” – an acronym for, “Reason I Go Home Tonight.”
The results of this messaging blew Tony and his team away. Safety Team Members began to showcase leadership qualities that were otherwise unknown. Efficiency, production, and work relationships prospered. “Engagement has been the linchpin of our entire effort. The employees assumed ownership of our safety program,” Willoughby said. Everyone is now talking about safety. “We have also embraced technology. Using phones, iPads, etc. We use them for job hazard analysis, safety incident reporting, and a host of other things. Workers can take photos and upload their reports. Making safety easy is another important element of buy-in.”
One of the most important improvements for safety at EKPC came from increasing communication and hosting safety speakers. Having national speakers, including amputation survivor Kina Repp and vision-loss victim Tony Crow share their personal injury stories has been key. Maybe even more significant was when Campbell began having employees share personal stories about how an accident impacted them and their family.
Preventing near misses and accidents begins with clear and compliant visual communication. “Tony always challenges me to 'keep it fresh' so we keep the messages of safety in people’s face at all times,” Willoughby said. “You have to maintain enthusiasm and awareness or after a while those messages become background noise. Our signage and communications are a huge part of that.” To amplify safety messages, a communications staff posts informative infographics and signs in windows. A television displays montages of family photos, short video clips, and other fun tidbits to keep workers focused on the rewards of going home safely. “We really are communicating that we as an organization, we value them,” Willoughby said.