Google “organizational culture,” and you’ll see that it’s a hot topic these days, across every industry. CEOs and other top executives are recognizing that developing a strong, sustainable company culture is not only essential to an organization’s performance; it can deliver meaningful value in terms of recruiting and retaining the best employees, strengthening an organization’s brand identity, and earning the trust and ongoing support of customers and stakeholders.

A company may stand for many different things. But in the utilities industry, leading organizations all share one core value: safety.

How a company nurtures safety, both internally and externally, speaks volumes about its priorities and values. Organizations that commit to developing a strong and sustainable safety culture send a message about the importance of the health and well-being of their employees and the public. Third-party contractors, regulators, public officials, customers, shareholders, and the general public have greater trust and support for organizations that value and promote safety—with measurable positive impact on the bottom line. More importantly, a strong safety culture fosters internal and external behaviors that protect workers and those who live near and work around utility infrastructure.

Where does a safety culture come from?

Culture forms organically in organizations when people work together to achieve a common goal. It’s not just “slogans and messaging”—although targeted, appropriate messaging certainly plays an important role. Starting with top leadership, a strong safety culture develops when employees at all levels consistently embrace and demonstrate personal responsibility for their safety, as well as the safety of their colleagues and the public—on the clock and off.

How do you know if you have a safety culture?

How do you measure it? It’s not always easy, but it can be done. Utilities that prioritize safety assess their culture by examining employee perceptions and beliefs. They also examine the effectiveness of the structural framework that exists to support and sustain the desired safety behaviors and results. These assessments often include audits of their selected metrics and performance, governance structure, methods and procedures, process adherence, policies, and incident drivers, to name a few. Similar principles and processes can, and should, apply to the utilities’ public safety efforts as well.

Higher expectations, bigger opportunities

Today, regulators, policy makers, insurers, and investors consider a company’s culture and safety commitment when evaluating utility capital investments, cost recovery, and perhaps more importantly, liability.

Beyond organizational safety, considerable attention is being given to how companies deliver public safety programs and engage their stakeholders. Customer expectations and scrutiny are intensifying, and stakeholders expect utilities and pipeline operators to be proactive and predictive in their approach to educating the public and avoiding accidents.
And then there are the Millennials. Born between 1981 and 1999, this group accounts for more than one-third of all workers, making them the largest generation represented in the U.S. labor force, according to Pew Research Center’s 2018 analysis of U.S. Census data. They are particularly passionate about joining and staying with organizations with strong, positive, community-oriented cultures. They prioritize working for companies dedicated to protecting the well-being of communities as well as their workforces, and actively seek out employers who will invest in their personal growth and well-being. Millennials represent a significant opportunity to instill stronger safety cultures at utilities, as well as within third-party contractor organizations.

The takeaway

The evidence is clear: Creating and nurturing a strong safety culture is a key component of a utility’s long-term success. Extending that culture of safety to the communities they serve through effective public safety programs helps to save lives, prevent injuries, reduce service interruptions and infrastructure damage. It builds trust with customers and communities, and assures investors regulators—and potential employees—that the utility is a well-run company operating in the public interest.

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