Safety Culture

January 1, 2012
by Will Nutter, President and COO

After attending a safety symposium with his staff at APS, Mike Neil pitched to the UAA the idea of a safety summit that would focus on real people discussing real safety events and issues and then brainstorming ways to share lessons learned with others in our industry.

After a lot of conference calls and planning, the first Safety Summit was held in Salt Lake City, Utah,  September 13 and 14. The summit was modeled after the System Foresters Summit and  concentrated on six safety topics, each with assigned champions. Randy Miller offered to be the moderator and keep the process rolling. The champions led the discussions, collecting the information discussed over the two day event. Following the summit, the champions provided summaries of the takeaways for their discussion groups and agreed to submit a paper outlining the findings of the summit for publication in the Utility Arborist Newsline.

The summit participants consisted of line clearance crew members, first line supervisors, safety professionals, foresters, executives, and presidents.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, checked their credentials, titles and company name at the door, rolled up their sleeves, and focused on getting the most out of this event.

The topic I championed was Safety Culture. I started the discussion by asking my group of roughly 90 participants what safety culture meant to them. Below I’ve listed the group’s thoughts in order of how important each was to them.

Most importantly, they said safety is a belief system. It is something that is learned and taught. Every team member must hold safety as a belief system or it cannot function at a high level. When safety is the core element of the belief system, every team member believes the most important goal of the work day is to come home the way they left for work each day.

Senior Management

Senior management must show they are engaged and care. Saying it is not enough; they must live it. A prime example of this was given at the summit: A senior management group came out to inspect their crews on a job site without wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and footwear. The person who described the incident explained the contradiction: they didn’t respect the job site enough to wear proper PPE, yet they could fire a crew member for the same offense. Our group agreed that “walking the walk” is a top to bottom commitment. Everyone must be pulling for the same team, sending the same message, and leading by example.

Near Miss Reporting

This was another essential piece of safety culture brought up in our discussion, and while everyone was doing some form of it, no one felt theirs was at the level it needed to be. The majority felt that more near misses were happening than were being reported. While the near misses were being discussed among the crews, they were not being reported because of the fear of management retaliation. The more buy in from the crews, the more near misses were reported.

Communicate the Safety Program

Let everyone know what the expectations are, and then hold them accountable. We agreed it was critical that everyone receives the same message and knows what the expectations are. Holding the foremen accountable for their crews was a reoccurring theme from many of the foremen and supervisors in our group. For example, some companies will discipline the foreman for the unsafe work practices of those working below him or her, even if the foreman wasn’t directly responsible for the policy being broken.

Safety Committees or Champions

When supported, Safety Committees or Champions are very successful in promoting a true safety culture. In fact, many companies have champions or committees in place, and many great examples were shared with the group. The most successful safety committees were ones made up of various position levels from crews to management. In these committees, members were given the authority to communicate committee findings and make changes when necessary. In most cases, committee members were stricter on enforcing safety policies than management was; they wanted the responsibility and were willing to make tough decisions.


Every group discussed incentives for employees, including what works and what doesn’t. The general consensus was that the crews do appreciate a t-shirt, coffee mug, or whatever is offered, but mostly they just want to be recognized for their efforts and hard work. It can be as simple as a handshake from a manager or utility employee, or a lunch brought to the job site.  Recognizing them in front of their peers was considered an additional bonus. Whether that was at a meeting or just at show up, it is important to let the crew or crew member know why they are being recognized. It is just as important to recognize bad behavior as it is to recognize good behavior. Unfortunately, the individuals exhibiting poor safety behaviors many times get the same incentives as those exhibiting good behaviors; they just haven’t had the accident yet! For this reason, it is important that we recognize the bad safety behaviors when we see them. People must be held accountable for their behaviors, good and bad.

Brother’s Keeper

This is another tool that everyone talks about, yet it is harder for some to implement than others, depending on their environment and culture. A true safety culture recognizes the pivotal role of Brother’s Keeper in keeping a workforce safe. Not everyone functions at 100 percent every day, and when we look out for each other, it improves safety, communication, production and morale. Too many times the opinions of new employees were not valued because of a lack of respect or a cowboy attitude from seasoned employees. Some great examples were shared with the group of Brothers Keeper and incidents that were prevented because of people looking out for one another.

Safety is an Attitude

Many of the group felt that employees who took safety seriously had a certain attitude when it came to safety. They wouldn’t compromise their belief system and portrayed a confidence and attitude regarding safety that was contagious. Those people lead by example, making safety the first word out of their mouth in the morning and living it 24/7.


Training our employees is everyone’s responsibility. Most companies have a very detailed training program that outlines training for all classifications, certifying employees as Line Clearance Certified. We discovered the training among tree companies was very similar, but the feedback from a lot of participants was there is a need for more hands on training, either by individual companies or jointly sponsored with the utilities they work for. The field employees learn more if it is presented in a hands-on event where they can perform the task.

Another important piece of safety culture is determining who is qualified and fit to be on our job sites. Over the past decade the turnover in our industry has been a challenge in many respects; demand for qualified tree workers has continued to grow, and the industry is pushing for more qualified workers. As a result, many companies have expressed concerns over who made it through the screening process and on to the job site. Often, when a foreman was assigned a new employee, the foreman had no involvement in the hiring or screening of the employee. Hiring for attitude and character should be considered, not just the industry experience!


We must be credible and believable when talking about safety. Our employees can smell a fake a mile away, so don’t waste your time trying to put a snow job on when talking safety. This ties back to the belief that all team members are engaged.

Everyone Is A Leader

Everyone must be leader/mentor when it comes to safety. The days have passed when the boss was the only one talking about safety and when he or she had finished we would go back to doing what we always did. Take the challenge within your organization and be a safety leader. Take an OSHA 30 class, become certified as a Certified Tree Care Safety Professional, and show you care and are willing to make a difference.


Utilities can do a lot to partner with suppliers and employees for safety. Too many times the answer is no when it comes to holding a training event that the supplier proposed, unless it’s a non billable event. Our group proposed that utilities become an active partner of the safety event by attending it, participating in it, and helping to promote it. When we partner together, it sends the message to all employees that we are united and serious about safety. We can’t put the expectation out without giving suppliers the tools to be successful. Some utilities do a very good job with this, and others just put out expectations without the partnership it takes to have everyone be successful.

Be Approachable

Stop and listen to the individuals who are engaged and willing to give feedback, whether positive or negative. It is our job as leaders to listen to our employees and suppliers, and by ignoring their feedback or making ourselves unapproachable, we are losing out on valuable information.


Explain the consequences of incidents and the rewards of working incident free. Show your employees the importance of safety by explaining the consequences of incidents for the injured employee, their family, the company and co-workers. This approach is more impactful if the leader is willing to share specific cost details and other details. Equally important, remember to share the company successes when you work incident free. Explain the goals of the company and give regular updates on your progress of meeting them. Ask yourself and your employees what you are going to do to help improve upon these goals.

To conclude our discussion, I asked what things people were doing different. The first thing that was brought up was Job Behavior Observations.  This is a process of observing safe and unsafe acts and finding behavior trends that indicate opportunities for improvement or behavior trends that require positive reinforcement . The second thing is trending in general to indicate where and when incidents have the most potential to happen and being able to keep that incident from happening.

The two days we spent in Utah made up one of the most productive events I have experienced in my career. This is due to everyone working toward a common goal to improve safety in our industry. We were truly our Brother’s Keepers for those two days! Now where do we go from here? You could be a leader and mentor and keep this going through regional meetings or just promote safety through your company.