Improving company culture and combatting complacency have much to do with safety for workers who climb towers as part of their jobs and those who otherwise work on telecommunications sites, according to Benjamin Afton. In his role as safety manager at the telecommunications division of Black & Veatch, Afton spoke at the 2017 Network Infrastructure Forum, a part of the International Telecommunications Expo.
An engineering, procurement, construction and consulting company, Black & Veatch specializes in infrastructure development in telecommunications, power, oil and gas, water, and security. The company has 12,000 employees and $3 billion in annual revenue. The telecommunications division reformed its methods for reducing health and safety risks in the workplace after its chairman and CEO, Steve Edwards, telephoned Afton in 2016 to say worker safety had to improve. Edwards had noticed a trend of an increasing number of on-the-job injuries. What followed was a two-week stand-down of field work while managers and employees met to determine the root causes and to formulate a plan to resolve them.
Positive or Negative Effect
Company culture is a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, or practices that characterize an institution or an organization, Afton said. He said culture may have a positive or a negative effect on safety versus risk-taking, quality of work, employee morale and business productivity. Complacency comes when people get stuck in a comfort zone of repeating what they have always done, whether it is effective or not.
“For safety versus risk-taking, you have to ask yourself whether your employees hesitate to raise safety-related questions because it may effect scheduling, or are they more averse to taking risks?” Afton asked. “Why are they taking risks? Is it because they don’t have the training that they need? Maybe that’s just not a value that they share. But I can tell you that job safety and work quality are tied together.”
Injuries Due to Rework
When Black & Veatch examined the record of injuries from 2014 to 2016, it found that three-fourths occurred on job sites where workers were sent to fix something that wasn’t done adequately the first time. “Had we taken the time to do those jobs the right way, we wouldn’t have sent workers back, and the injuries that happened while they performed rework wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
— Benjamin Afton, safety manager at the telecommunications division of Black & Veatch
In 2016, the Missouri-Kansas market logged a bad year in safety performance for Black & Veatch, Afton said, as measured in the number of injuries considered to be recordable by the U.S. Occupational and Health Administration (OSHA). He said an OSHA recordable injury is one that requires treatment greater than first aid, such as broken bones, concussions and cuts that require stitches.
“In 2015, the telecom division had seven or eight OSHA recordables for the whole year,” Afton said. “In 2016, we had seven or eight by the end of January. We had to stop and think about what we were doing and why, when we’d had pretty good performance in the past, all of a sudden we were now having a rash of incidents. It reached the point a month or two after that when we were having one or two OSHA recordables per week.”
Worker morale began to suffer, and Afton said it was because when injured employees couldn’t do their jobs, other employees had to work more to meet the build schedules. He said there was some anger among those who had to climb towers in place of others, and soon those who were taking their place had injuries and couldn’t climb. “It was a vicious cycle that we got caught up into,” Afton said.
Another two elements of culture that Afton said are tied together are morale and productivity, and this link was reflected as poor morale and more injuries led to a slip in productivity. He said as productivity fell, so did the quality of work. This meant more revisits to sites, which increased the risks. “We had people getting injured because they were unfocused and unmotivated,” he said.
The Missouri-Kansas market had 40 or 50 Black & Veatch craft employees in crews building towers for various carriers. Afton said he received a call from company CEO Edwards, who said: “If we can’t do this work safely and we can’t stop hurting people, then we’re just not going to do it because we might still be making money on it, but we’re not going to be a company that puts people at risk to make a profit.”
Afton said that he was a regional manager for one of the company’s smaller offices when he received the call from the CEO. “The point was made, and it surely motivated me to do something about it,” he said. “What we did was we shut everything down. We told our clients, ‘We have to figure out what’s going on. We’re sorry that we’re not going to meet the schedule, but we have a moral obligation to make sure that we’re not going to continue hurting people and putting people at risk.’ We brought everybody back to our main office and asked them what problems they were having in the field that caused the rash of incidents. We received some good information as we engaged the craft leadership, the foremen on the job sites, the general foremen in the offices and the superintendents.”
The meeting led the company to shed employees who didn’t fit its culture because they had no interest in working in a safe way, Afton said. The rash of incidents coincided with a period of rapid growth in which the region went from two or three crews to upward of 12.
“We did that in such a short time that we didn’t think enough about who we were bringing into the organization,” Afton said. “We didn’t spend enough time with new hires, telling them what our culture was and values were. We changed our hiring practices, including the amount of time we spent and some of the safety training. One of our new training programs is called ‘People Matter Most’ and focuses on avoiding injury. If what it takes to avoid injury will cause problems with the client, so be it, because we just have an obligation to make sure no one is hurt.”
Visible Felt Leadership
A step in the implementation that Afton said he found to be particularly effective was what he called “visible felt leadership.” It started with the phone call Afton received from Edwards, and it continued with operations managers, turf directors, and other higher-ups going with safety and construction managers to jobsites for safety audits and to make sure crews understood it’s not just the regional safety manager checking to be sure crews have fire extinguishers, first aid kits and other equipment, but also that safety has the attention of the company’s top-level people. “That commitment really makes a big difference,” Afton said.
At the time Afton gave his talk on March 27, 2017, he said more than 270 days had elapsed since the stand-down without an OSHA recordable incident, and morale has seen a big increase.
In addition to its craft safety committee, Black & Veatch has a behavior-based safety program used as a tool by craft employees. “When they see somebody on their crew doing something unsafe or making a poor decision, they can anonymously transmit the data regarding that situation to us,” Afton said. “There’s no blame assigned. We want folks to recognize unsafe behaviors and be able to correct them with each other, and then give us the information on what they did about it. We take that to the craft safety committee. Through our organization, we can tailor our training in real time to the types of issues that we’re having in the field, which has been invaluable.”
Employees receive rewards for participating in another program called “Opportunity for Improvement,” which encourages them to submit ideas or processes that would make the job safer. When the company selects an idea to implement, the employee who submitted it receives a reward. Afton said many good suggestions have come from employees participating in the program. “Use your folks in the field, because they have a lot of great information,” he said.
Taking these steps allowed the company culture to go from reactive to proactive, which helps to prevent incidents. Afton said when the culture was reactive, the company spent time investigating incidents, figuring out the who, what, why, where and when. He said by that time that was figured out, another accident would occur because no one was monitoring the other employees.
Afton spoke of another safety concern having to do with driving vehicles. “Driving vehicles is a huge concern because we send employees to tower sites,” he said. “Constructions managers and crews drive anywhere from 500 to 1,500 miles a week. We were having a significant amount of vehicle accidents in which someone could have been seriously injured or killed — 84 in 2014. We cut that in half by placing a vehicle tracker into every vehicle to hold people accountable.”
Records from the vehicle tracker generate a report that scores a driver’s activity from 1 to 5. It tells the driver the score was lowered by activity such as speeding, harsh braking or aggressive turning. If a driver isn’t aware that a particular driving habit increases risk, the company tells that person. “Then, typically, you’ll see those scores improve,” Afton said.
Making Data Available
A key to the telematics program is making sure that the data is available to anyone at any time. The company also sends a monthly report to employees with drivers’ names and scores on it. Everyone who drives a company vehicle sees how their coworkers are doing, and Afton said no one wants to be on the bottom of that list. He said the Missouri-Kansas market went from being the worst to being the best in three months.
Once a company has a safety program in place and achieves improvement, Afton said it is important to find ways to keep the program fresh and avoid complacency. He said giving employees recognition for good safety performance helps them pay continuous attention to the safety program. “They want to be the ones who get the most attaboys,” he said.
The last piece of advice Afton gave was to train, train, and then train some more. He said the telecom industry continually evolves, and there always will be new safety regulations and guidelines from the American National Standards Institute, OSHA and other organizations. Staying current is important because falling behind can have a dire effect.
“Making sure that we keep folks engaged with training and having regular trainings will help to institute the safety culture that you want,” Afton said. “Above all, just don’t get stuck in the comfort zone. If you’re comfortable, you’re in a bad spot.”
Don Bishop is the executive editor of AGL Magazine. He joined AGL Media Group in 2004. He was the founding editor of AGL Magazine, the AGL Bulletin email newsletter (now AGL eDigest) and AGL Small Cell Magazine.
A frequent moderator and host for AGL Conferences, Don writes and otherwise obtains editorial content published in AGL Magazine, AGL eDigest and the AGL Media Group website.