The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) requires pipeline owners and operators to educate key stakeholders about pipeline operations, damage prevention, and leak recognition and response. Do you think of it as an obligation or as an opportunity?
Natural gas utilities that strategically leverage their public safety education programs are also investing in a cost-effective operational safety initiative. They see it as more than simply a mandated communications function; it is an important part of utility asset protection, system integrity, and the safety, health, and security of communities/constituents they serve.
Effective public education contributes to damage prevention, leak recognition, and system security and integrity. When thoughtfully conceived and implemented, natural gas public safety engagement programs can drive desired behavior and are relatively fast and inexpensive to put in place. And while estimates vary considerably regarding how much the industry spends on public safety awareness and education, experts agree these expenditures are a drop in the bucket compared to capital investments and damage repairs.
The fact is, there is considerable operational value to be gained by integrating investments in pipeline public safety awareness and damage prevention education into a utility‘s infrastructure programs. Although these education programs often cost relatively little compared to capital projects, they can be implemented relatively quickly, provide the public with vital information to identify and avoid potentially dangerous situations, and protect pipeline infrastructure investments. In effect, a knowledgeable and engaged public serves as additional eyes and ears that can safely help utilities identify or avoid potentially hazardous situations.
There’s also another benefit: When utility safety communications have been properly brand-aligned, these programs enhance the reputation of the utility as a trusted and valued community partner. Research demonstrates that the public expects utilities to communicate safety information and that when utilities meet these expectations, both their public image and the perception of their value to the community are enhanced.
It pays to be strategic about getting the word out
The more communication someone recalls, the more likely the individual is to demonstrate knowledge of natural gas leak recognition as well as pipeline proximity. Regular communication is important, but success isn’t just a matter of quantity.
Because mandated public awareness initiatives provide a fair amount of flexibility when it comes to how these campaigns are executed, utilities can gain substantial value by delivering branded communication and strategically tailoring safety messaging, visuals, channels, frequency, and timing to better reach key target audiences.
It can also pay to look beyond the obvious. Targeting audiences not expressly identified in regulatory mandates can also deliver highly successful outcomes. Safety education programs aimed at school-age children and their teachers, for example, have been proven effective because students and their teachers are trusted information ambassadors for parents, guardians, and other family members.
The bottom line
True, it can be difficult to demonstrate the value of something that didn’t happen—a dig-in that didn’t occur, or an incident was avoided because the public knew the appropriate action to take. That said, the cost of accident avoidance can be negligible compared to the cost of infrastructure damage, or worse. Public safety is always a smart investment.