Communicating Safety: Lessons Learned from the Safety Summit

July 26, 2012
by Will Nutter, Wright Tree Service

Anyone in the industry who has been in contact with me over the past year has heard my opinion on the UAA Safety Summit held in Salt Lake City last September and how impressed I was by the content and outcome. Enough people listened to me, I was asked to talk about it at the Texas Regional Meeting on behalf of the UAA, which led to a request for this Op Ed article. I hope my opinions and experiences, in a small way, are making a difference and getting the word out about safety, and I’d like to challenge you to all join the conversation.

I believe my passion around this subject comes from having done the work, knowing firsthand the challenges it presents. I have also supervised employees performing the work and dealt with the fall out when things go wrong and someone gets hurt. I have seen major success and recognized employees who are performing a very challenging job under less than ideal conditions.

What did we learn from the summit about why incidents happen?

  • No one company or person was immune from getting injured on the job, at home, or in auto incidents.
  • Most incidents had a common theme. A shortcut was taken, an approved work method wasn’t followed, we were in a hurry, and we assumed that it would work. Training was lacking in some cases, but the experienced employees were not immune to serious or fatal injury. We were not looking out for our brothers and sisters, and we didn’t listen when someone told us to stop and think.

What did we learn from the summit about how to work incident free? The common themes were:

  • Brother’s Keeper works when everyone is committed.
  • Training pays.
  • Safety is a belief system.
  • Accountability is not a bad thing.
  • Communication is imperative.

We had many success stories of regions or groups of crews that have gone long periods of time without incidents, so we know it is achievable to get to Target Zero.

So what is holding our industry back? Why are we still having serious incidents and fatalities on our watch? For those of you that follow the Tree Care Industry Magazine, they include a monthly Accident Brief on industry related treeworker and civilian serious injuries and fatalities. It is a chilling reminder of how frequently serious injuries and fatalities occur while performing tree care. After reviewing the statistics for the past year, the average is 12 to 16 serious injuries or fatalities. How do we as a utility vegetation management industry keep our workers off of this chart?

We need to keep the conversation going and agree on some action items, both individual or company based, and industry wide. I am proud to say that a second annual Safety Summit is scheduled in the Northeast in November. I have heard discussion around safety being a part of every conference UAA is involved in. UAA has discussed the need and desire for a Safety Committee that would fall under the Education Committee, with the goal being education and communication of safety as it relates to our industry. What role do you think UAA should play in safety?

I can tell you that what we’re doing now is not enough to get us to where we want to be. This is going to take every person in our industry investing in the belief system that doing the job safely is the only acceptable way to get the job done. I think I can speak for all line clearance contractors when I say we are throwing the kitchen sink at it. None of us will be satisfied until we get to zero. That was very evident in our meeting in Salt Lake City. The company colors and titles were checked at the door, and every single person attending gave feedback and ideas on how to improve. I believe that is what it is going to take to get to zero. The cowboy mentality and drive for production has to be balanced with training, communication, and looking out for our fellow workers. Shortcuts need to be a thing of the past, and we all need to stop and think before we act to figure out what the best possible outcome is.

The Education Committee has been in communication recently with three utilities facing serious injuries or fatalities of homeowners and non line clearance company employees because either they broke minimum approach or an indirect contact occurred. All utilities have exposure, whether it’s through their own employees, their contractors, homeowners, or the general public. So what is your utility doing about it? What role should the utility play in contractor safety – should they set the bar? Should utilities provide training? Should they participate in contractor training?

Get involved. Share what you are doing and what works. Put your two cents in. Everyone’s opinion can get us to where we want to be: Target Zero.