Electric Utilities & Safety Culture in an Aging Workforce

Electrical power-line installers and repairers regularly appear on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of the top ten most dangerous jobs. According to the Fallen Linemen Organization an average of 45 linemen a year lose their lives on the job in the U.S. alone. This is despite a workforce that is predominantly made up of seasoned professionals. But it looks like there may be a big shift in demographics in the near future – how this will affect safety in the industry remains to be seen.

Long-Time Utility Workers Nearing Retirement

West Penn Power stands as an excellent example of the challenge currently facing the electric utility industry. At West Penn – one of FirstEnergy’s Pennsylvania utilities – the median age of a line worker is 45. According to the company, in the next five years 30% of the utility’s distribution line workers will be eligible for retirement. And West Penn Power is not in an unusual situation – according to EUCI, over one-half (50%) of utility workers will be eligible to retire in approximately the next 5-7 years.

As West Penn spokesman Todd Meyers recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “That’s a lot of expertise, institutional knowledge and skills walking out the door.”

A Big Challenge Ahead

In January 2015 a national survey of 433 electric utility executives in the United States revealed that this aging workforce is weighing heavy on the industry’s mind. The problem ranked second only to concerns over the industry’s aging infrastructure, and was considered more critical than the current regulatory structure, federal emissions standards, coal plant retirements and other issues.

Partnering with technical schools is one way that some in the industry have begun to tackle the problem. But encouraging students to enter the field is only the first of many challenges. Perhaps a bigger question is this: how can utility companies best transfer knowledge from their seasoned professionals to their less skilled and younger workers entering the field?  How can they continue to ensure the highest levels of safety?

Emphasizing and Ensuring Safety

Utility workers face many occupational hazards, including high-voltage contact, working at heights and in confined spaces, and challenging weather conditions, among others. So how do you keep workers safe under these circumstances, particularly when you have so many young or inexperienced workers entering the workforce?

“You begin with attitude,” says Timothy Self, director of safety and specialized training in the Southeast Lineman Training Center in Trenton, GA. He spoke with Safety+Health recently about keeping linemen safe. His advice: “Start to form the culture from the very beginning.”

How can safety program technicians and others responsible for safety ensure that this message comes across loud and clear? A renewed focus on training plays a central role. People often quickly forget what they’ve learned, particularly if they do not have the opportunity to immediately put the new knowledge to use. Regular training that follows a “Teach It, Show It, Try It, Check It” approach can make a big difference in developing a culture that values safety. It’s also important to provide safety leadership, both at the executive level and throughout the company. Introducing a mentorship program is one option, where newer hires are paired up with more seasoned workers who model the correct behavior and attitude towards safety.

Training the Next Generation

One thing is clear: as these veteran workers near retirement age, training the next generation of line workers and others in the electrical utility workforce becomes a monumental task. The electric line industry alone employs approximately 200,000 men and women in the United States. The future of the industry depends on them acquiring the expertise, skills and attitude necessary to continue to perform the job as safely as possible.

Want to learn more about developing a strong safety culture in your workplace? Check out our whitepaper: “Supercharge Your Safety Culture” for implementing safety initiatives with the power to reduce incidents and create a tangible shift in worker attitude.

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