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Behavior-Based Safety Champion at Tucson Electric Power: Elizabeth Firkins

by Gail Snyder

When a company has not only survived, but excelled for more than two centuries, that company is doing something right.  Not only lasting, but growing (and exponentially so), requires the ability to evolve with the times via a continual quest for improvement. This approach is the current that has energized Tucson Electric Power (TEP) since the late 1800s. Today, this principal subsidiary of UniSource Energy Corporation generates and transmits electricity to more than 400,000 customers in Southern Arizona.

A primary commitment of TEP’s management is to “provide safe, reliable power.”  If those commitments appear even slightly compromised, the folks at TEP take it seriously, which is exactly what they did in 2009 when they noticed a rise in worker safety incidents.  “Even though we had a lot of programs that seemed to be working on the surface, we were still having injuries,” says Elizabeth Firkins, lead superintendent of employee-based safety.

At the time, Firkins was working as the superintendent of field personnel in both the transmission and distribution side of power generation when she was asked to fill a position in the company’s safety standards area. Firkins, whose philosophy is “Change happens, better be ready, because here it comes,” answered the request with one word, “Absolutely.” In fact, this new responsibility was a very good fit. “I’ve always had a really fond place in my psyche for safety. I just think that if you’re safe, then you’re productive. If you’re safe, everything comes together, including your financials,” she says. “I always believed that safety was the most important tenet that we could possibly have.”

Firkins soon found that many employees had heard about and were interested in behavioral safety. “I started looking into it and thought, ‘This is the logical next step to take,’” she explains.  “When my manager approached me and asked if I would be interested in taking over the role of coordinating the behavior-based safety (BBS) effort, I said yes. It was that easy.”

Getting the process in place was admittedly, not exactly easy, but well worth it, according to Firkins. The first hurdle was exploring and deciding on which behavior-based safety firm to help design and implement the process.  “We have such a diverse work group. We chose Quality Safety Edge (QSE) because they were so willing to custom fit behavioral safety to our culture, to our organization,” Firkins comments. TEP employs approximately 1,350 people. They made the decision to start with the group of employees who had invested time and energy in researching behavioral safety.

“Right now our transmission/distribution group is the pilot group. And the reason we went with them is because that was the work group that had been to a conference, heard about behavioral safety, and pursued it. They didn’t just bring it back and say, ‘Hey, make this happen.’ They were involved. They went to other conferences and continued to investigate. So the workforce themselves were the ones that said, ‘We think this might work for us,’” Firkins explains.

That type of employee buy-in makes TEP’s name for the process—Employee-Based Safety—all the more appropriate. However, not only buy-in but employee participation has played the pivotal role in the success of this safety initiative.  From the beginning, Firkins recognized the importance of an employee-led safety initiative. Today, a true student and champion of the process and coordinator for four safety steering committees, she’s learned many valuable lessons that, luckily for others, she’s willing to share.

Meetings are for managers!”

This, perhaps understandably, was the take that some supervisors, responsible for day-to-day productivity, expressed when their employees needed time to attend safety steering committee meetings. In the early stages of BBS design and implementation, these supervisors struggled with the time necessary to make the program a success. “If we’re safer, production is actually higher. People are more efficient. I think that’s where I played a key role because I was able to spend time with the supervisors and the team leads one on one to explain why this is so important and to say, ‘If you have some questions or concerns, let me help you with it,’” Firkins says. “Now they see how this benefits them, but without leadership support it won’t happen because it takes time, especially up front.”

Importantly, the BBS safety leaders were identified early on by asking the workforce, “Who is somebody that you trust relative to safety?” Those people recommended by their peers were then asked to lead the initiative. Seeing the people they selected leading the initiative gave credibility not only to the process, but showed employees that management respected their opinions.

The steering committee occasionally asks employees who are undecided about behavior-based safety to attend a meeting. “Once they sit in on one of those meetings and realize how hard everyone is working, they say, ‘Wait, this is employees. Management isn’t in here asserting their authority. This is employees making decisions, employees deciding what to do, and in which direction to go.’ Without fail, those same people start participating,” Firkins remarks.

Relevance leads to real-time action.

Like any pilot program, this one hit some rough spots. Just after kickoff, in February 2010, the work group of approximately 400 people experienced 11 minor injuries.  The steering committees struggled with the dilemma, but a turning point was right around the corner. “We tripped to the fact that, hey, when people write a concern, if we really look into the concern and analyze the behavior, using the PIC/NIC analysis, we can define the safety barrier or hazard,” says Firkins. “The design team got behaviors right off of past incidents. We did the analysis and created checklists based on the behaviors that we believe created or added to the incidents happening.

We were able to remove 31 barriers or hazards last year. Once we did that, the steering committees really started evolving and participation shot up. When the work groups realized that they could identify and remove some of the barriers, they were very motivated to get more involved.” As participation shot up, incidents plummeted. The BBS pilot group has remained incident free since June 18 of last year.

Lead, but get out of the way!

“To me the most critical piece is that leadership is a strong supporter and advocator that stays the heck out of the way,” Firkins asserts.  “Be there to support and encourage and when somebody asks you to do something—if it’s wearing a funny hat at a celebration or making sure a traffic stop sign gets installed—do it! That’s your job. Stay out of the middle of it.” Firkins attends the monthly meetings of all four steering committees, plus a monthly safety council meeting. She views her role as one of sharing information between steering committee members so that the teams are consistently moving in a common direction. When necessary, she is more than willing to act as a facilitator between management and employees, but she prefers to remain behind the scenes encouraging and providing information.  “It’s very, very important that they see me as someone who can coordinate, remove obstacles, and be available, but this is an employee-based program. I think it’s very critical that they are the ones that go to the management meetings, and they’re the ones who talk about participation levels, and they’re the ones that talk about recognitions and celebrations,” she says.

Firkins also learned quickly, usually from direct feedback, but also through observation, the type of reinforcement most welcomed by employees. Many people feel uncomfortable with public recognition, but a handshake, a candy bar, a positive word are always appreciated.  In this work group everyone seems to enjoy a certificate of appreciation, quietly given, that serves as a reminder that one’s work is valued. Those certificates are often taken home to show to the family, and many employees report they’ve also taken home the positive methods of behavioral safety.

Combine credibility with commitment.

Now in her twenty-third year with TEP, Firkins knows and understands the demands of a diverse work group. With many years of experience in the field of generation power production, she was the company’s first female control operator and later honed her leadership skills as the director of labor relations. “I think that knowing a lot of people in the numerous areas has really helped me to be productive when I’m having discussions or offering suggestions. They don’t shut me down. They listen,” she says. Equally important, according to Firkins, is the support of her management.  “I didn’t do this by myself. I might be the facilitator, the coordinator, whatever, but having the support of my peers and making sure that everyone gets what they need at the moment they need it is really critical. And I’m proud of my company, the fact that they foresee that we’re going to have stumbles and make sure that we have somebody that can anticipate those stumbles and correct them before they become trips. That’s important,” she comments. “Also I think to have a behavior-based safety program, you have to have safety maturity. You can’t just say, ‘Hey we have a lot of incidents and we’re going to do this.’ There has to be some level of acceptance already for regulation compliance.”

Pay attention today and plan for tomorrow.

“Last year we had 8,438 conversations about safety at a peer-to-peer level,” Firkins reports. Those conversations are recorded as part of the observation process and Firkins credits those observations with the coinciding drop in incidents. The group is now focusing on transitioning members of the steering committees and ensuring that their replacements understand their critical role in the continued safety effort. With plans to implement behavior-based safety in other TEP work groups, Firkins and the committee members are making efforts to recognize people from other departments that helped remove some of the traffic hazards and other safety barriers. “An initiative this year is to actually move into some of the other work groups and offer our assistance and the opportunity to see what behavior-based safety is about and how it could work for them. At the beginning there was some concern on the management side that behavior-based safety might not get us what we needed or wanted, but it certainly has,” Firkins says and then adds, “Please don’t make this about me, but about what the process has done for us.”

Yet Firkins is a safety champion, after all, though a modest one, so we’ll let Grainne Matthews, QSE behavioral safety consultant, conclude with her evaluation, “Elizabeth Firkins is a true safety champion. She’s organized everything. She goes to all of the management meetings and facilitates the steering committees. She’s constantly positive about the BBS process, about everybody’s efforts, and about the effects of the work. She’s wonderful.”