There’s Safety in System Knowledge

The best way to promote safety is by making sure employees understand the systems they operate.

There’s Safety in System Knowledge

Staying on top of system maintenance to prevent overflows and other emergencies isn’t often thought of as a safety procedure, but it can keep your crew out of potentially dangerous situations.

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Every once in a while, you’ll hear a story about an operator who has been in the field for 40-plus years, and one thing that crops up time and again in these stories is that the operator really understands the system.

“The more you know about the system, the better you can maintain it and the safer you can be when you do,” says Andy Koebel, operations director for Bonita Springs (Florida) Utilities. “There’s nothing like getting to know the system as well as you can.”

Knowledge takes time

To some extent, there’s no substitute for the slow learning over a long time in the industry.

“My understanding, my level of input and, then by extension, my support for safety has done nothing but grow over my career,” says Joe Polowy, distribution operations superintendent for the Anchorage (Alaska) Water and Wastewater Utility.

But there are ways to jump-start the learning process for new employees and encourage continued learning in order for employees to capitalize on their knowledge.

Every system is different, and one way to ensure your employees are learning the necessary information to operate safely is to tailor and customize your safety program to reflect the details of a particular system or part of a system.

“We’ve written our own training manuals in-house,” Polowy says. “One covers the water distribution system; one covers pressure-regulating valves, specifically; and then one covers planning and project review.”

Creating system-specific training protocols and trainings also keeps employees thinking about the system. As they digest information from training, they can connect it to the pieces they are seeing while out in the field, and over time it will lead to an increased affinity for the system.

“If you’ve been here for 15 years, you might have seen the same safety training 15 times, so we also try to stress that it still has its purpose — you might know it in and out, but by going through it, by repetition, it becomes ingrained and then it becomes habit,” Koebel says. “That’s why we really strive to continue these programs and get people to understand them thoroughly. Quiz them, test them, continually encourage them to improve, and follow through to make sure they are learning — that they are picking it up and not just going through the motions.”

Learning to learn

Perhaps even more important than promoting informational knowledge, however, is cultivating a mindset among employees to learn continuously.

“One thing that I learned over the years was not to memorize any specific treatment process, or pressure zone, or hydraulic management, but instead to focus on learning how to learn,” Polowy says. “Our industry is constantly changing, and the industry standard is always updating.

“It starts with the smallest things: bringing up safety concerns in the morning meetings that you might have on jobs happening that day, or even safety remarks in general. And then following through with that,” he says. “Once you establish that kind of culture, then it becomes second nature. It’s automatically part of your job.”

Another way to promote in-depth and continually evolving system knowledge is a regular cleaning, maintenance or flushing program. Rotate newer employees, and before long, they will have seen large portions of the system.

“That flushing cycle is very important for the new guys because they’re going out and learning the system that way,” says Ryon Kershner, engineering supervisor and safety committee chairman for Roseburg (Oregon) Urban Sanitary Authority. “They’re dragging hoses, and they’re pulling every manhole. It allows them to get out and understand how each drainage basin works, and that’s kind of how the knowledge gets passed down.”

The Roseburg authority keeps a three-year flushing schedule.

“They start at the top of the drainage and work their way all the way to the bottom, so over three years, they’ve probably visited 75% of the manholes that way,” Kershner says.

It’s also important, in order to take full advantage of a program like this as an educational opportunity, to rotate seasoned employees with inexperienced ones.

Kershner has found that guys who’ve been with the system can answer questions that might not even be in the records. When he started, a supervisor of his predated the formation of the Roseburg authority, giving him an insight that no training could have provided as they worked side by side.

“They just have a great understanding of the system. They know every little thing that’s happened over the last 30 years,” Kershner says. “It’s amazing how fast I could learn the system and its little nuances: where potential overflows could be if there was a high rain, or when a situation happens, how do we solve those overflow problems?”

This aspect becomes more key as the industry approaches an expected wave of operator retirements. With so many longtime, knowledgeable employees reaching retirement age, passing on that institutional knowledge should be a priority.

“It’s a challenge that we deal with all the time, as some of our people retire. We try to cross-train and get people to work with them on a regular basis, so if there is an employee who’s been here for a long time and has a lot of knowledge, we’ll rotate our less-experienced employees with them on a regular basis so they get a chance to learn from these employees’ knowledge.”

As an engineer and supervisor, Kershner also sees the importance from behind a desk. Operators’ knowledge of the system helps him plan projects with their safety in mind.

“We listen to those guys. They’re in the field, and when something comes to light from those guys, it’s an important thing. We look to them for that information and how it’s going to be fixed,” he says. “As I moved into more of a construction management role, listening to the guys here who are in ditches and understand shoring and the equipment, it’s taught me basically everything I know about it. It helps me to watch out for them, watch out for the new guys when they get here, because now I have that understanding.

“We’ve had some pretty major rehab projects here over the last few years. And when I oversee other people working in our system, knowing, OK, this is going to be a high-flow time or you have people upstream who could be dumping something — we need to monitor that,” Kershner says.

Many benefits to knowledge

Getting to know the system can also benefit simply by decreasing system accidents. The fewer overflows and pipe bursts that crews are going out to fix, the fewer opportunities for accidents.

“It’s helped us avoid some I&I issues, which is a health issue for the system,” Kershner says. “We’ve come up with a couple bypass systems over the years where we’ve been able to split flow in high events to different drainages, and it’s kept us from overflowing out on the streets into storm drains.”

An intimate understanding and familiarity with the system not only promotes safety through sheer predictability — that the more you know, the more you can anticipate dangerous situations — but it also gives employees a confidence to make decisions for the sake of safety.

“It’s a really hard mindset to instill in people, to stop work,” Polowy says. “I mean, if you’re stopping work within your own work crews, it’s not really a big deal. When you begin stopping work that affects other work units, or even outside entities, then people are initially very hesitant to that. So you really have to enforce that mentality.”

Operators, especially young operators, are more willing to take that measure, as well as call out workers who might be trying to cut corners in the field, when they are confident in their knowledge that they’re right.

“Our operators are empowered to stop work even from other utilities or companies on site if they see something that’s immediately dangerous to life and health,” Polowy says.

In many ways, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Getting employees to feel connected and take ownership of the system and their own safety will naturally lead to an internal shift toward safe practices.

“Until you get the culture to change from the bottom all the way to the top, to where everyone believes in a true safety program, you’re not fulfilling that safety aspect of the job,” Polowy says. “Once you get the people on board, they’re the entire driving force behind a good and robust safety program that allows us to be productive. Start with the little things. That’s how to start the change in culture — start with the small things.”


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