Utility safety performance depends on several key differentiators

Image by Ziaur Chowdhury from Pixabay

By Eric Bauman, EPRI

For almost five years, I’ve led research in the field of occupational health and safety (OHS) working closely with organizations and employees to develop evidence-based solutions to enhance worker health and safety in the electric sector. Through ergonomics, human performance, driving safety, fatigue and heat stress management, data analytics, and more, we are helping reduce serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) which are often the most significant and life-changing type of on-the-job reported incidents. In addition to saving lives, these initiatives can better care for employees and lead to healthier and more profitable companies.

When making decisions about which new health and safety initiatives to support, decision-makers often rely on benchmarking and shared learnings, personal experience and perceptions of risk, and traditional safety metrics. But what if the health and safety investment decisions were supported with quantitative evidence of effectiveness in reducing injuries? Rather than reviewing direct and indirect losses, and weighing this with personal anecdotes and current trends which may or may not be making a difference, what if we had numerical demonstration of the effectiveness of interventions?

Individual studies have validated the links between safety culture assessments while other studies have validated relationships of leading indicators to safety performance, but virtually no quantitative studies have been completed on how business factors influence safety outcomes.

However, we now have quantitative evidence of how all three factors together influence safety performance.

Credit: EPRI

In a first-of-its-kind, two-year study, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has identified statistically significant relationships among specific safety actions that lead to a reduction of injuries. We did this by looking at safety through three key lenses: how employees feel about safety (safety climate), what organizations do to keep employees safe (leading indicators), and how organizations are organized to indirectly promote safety (business factors). Datasets were obtained from 13 electric utility organizations and applied to single and multivariate regression analyses. Out of the 78 variables in the final dataset, nine showed a strong, statistically significant relationship with a five-year average of total recordable injury rate (TRIR).

The results of our study – which is freely available to the public – found the following key variables had strong to extreme correlation strength and statistical significance to TRIR:

  • Safety communication: Does management clearly communicate safety, near misses, and good catches to all levels within the organization? Does management bring safety information and new initiatives to the attention of all employees?  
  • Contractor safety management: Does the organization have a formal contractor safety management program?
  • Contractor pre-qualification: Does the organization pre-qualify or disqualify contractors from work based upon lagging indicators (e.g., historical injury rates)?
  • Risk assessment frequency: How often does the organization conduct formal risk assessments of assets, construction, operations, and maintenance?
  • Drug/alcohol testing requirements: Are all workers in the organization required to participate in randomized drug and alcohol testing program?
  • Field safety support: What percentage of workers are directly supported by a full-time
  • safety professional?
  • Constructability review frequency: On what percentage of projects does the organization conduct formal constructability reviews as part of project design planning?
  • Percentage of project design with field input: For what percentage of project design elements do field employees provide input?
  • Safe behavior recognition program: Does the organization have a recognition program for observing safe behavior? Does the organization track and act upon safety leading indicators?
Credit: EPRI

Taken together, these results identify the differentiators in organizational practices. In other words, based on our study, the companies undertaking the nine practices in Human Factors, Safety Leading Indicators, Prevention through Design, Contractor Selection and Management, and Incentives/Disincentives were shown to most influence safety performance. The study also highlights aspects of the safety system which can be prioritized to optimize performance and use limited resources most effectively. The study results should not be constructed to mean other practices are not effective in reducing injuries. Actions to build a just culture, where safety is supported throughout the organization, and the leading indicators that were validated to influence safety, can be used in health and safety initiatives. Our study focused on the differentiators.

It’s important to note that although these datasets came from electric utility partners, the assessment approach could be applied to any industry to identify the safety variables which are statistically linked to a reduction in total recordable injury rate. In fact, EPRI is currently looking for new collaborators in other industries – including engineering – to extent this research methodology to identify successful initiatives that correlate with the reduction of serious injuries and fatalities across industries.

For those of us who work in safety, the impacts of improvements to safety culture cannot be overstated. Aside from significant business advantages such as cost-avoidance and increased productivity, safety changes the way employees see their work and their relationship with their employer. Caring for your employees through a strong safety culture has shown to retain more talent, encourage that talent to seek advancement opportunities, and contribute to the quality of life for employees, their families, and their communities. Safety is good for business. And now, more than ever, we have strong correlation and statistical significance to back up this assertion and advocate for safety variables to be a core part of a company’s business strategy.

About the Author

Eric Bauman is Principal Technical Leader at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Bauman manages research in Occupational Health & Safety (Program 62) in areas of injury/illness surveillance, workplace exposures, heat stress, driving safety, ergonomic interventions, noise characterization and hearing loss, predictive data analytics, human performance and sensors. 

Bauman has worked for more than 40 years in environmental management, regulatory affairs, occupational health, siting, and risk communications. He is a charter member of the Society for Risk Analysis, associate member of the Environmental Law Institute, and member of the Human Factors & Ergonomics Society.


  • The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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