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Peterborough Utilities powers up for safety

By Mari-Len De Guzman

Peterborough Utilities Group is the gold recipient of Canada's Safest Employers Award 2012 in the Transportation and Utilities category.

The executive team at Peterborough Utilities Group (PUG) always starts every meeting with a discussion around safety. It’s a conscious effort at the management level to keep health and safety in the minds of every leader in the company, according to PUG’s president and CEO John Stephenson.

“It’s setting the tone from the top that safety is job one of what we’re doing around here, and it’s something that requires continual focus and continual improvement,” says Stephenson.

As a multifaceted utility company, PUG is not only focused on safety for its workers, but for the community it serves as well. The company provides electrical, water and power generation to the city of Peterborough, Ont., and surrounding areas, serving close to 35,000 customers. It also operates a zoo, which employs a high number of students during the summer.

PUG is enrolled in the Zero Quest program run by the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA). Zero Quest is a comprehensive audit program that assists workplaces in developing occupational health and safety management systems. Zero Quest consists of four levels of succession, with each level building upon the previous one. PUG has now completed phase three of the Zero Quest Outcomes level and is working to achieve the Sustainability level.

The company has also received a number of safety awards, including the President Award by the IHSA for completing more than 1.75 million hours without a lost-time incident, and the Wendell R. La Due Safety Award by the American Water Works Association.

For PUG executives, these recognitions are not a destination but a reminder to continue in their efforts to sustain and improve the company’s safety performance.

“The challenge is as (we) continue to get better at what (we’re) doing, that (we) don’t become complacent in it,” says Stephenson. “The focus needs to be on continuing to look for opportunities to improve, to challenge ourselves.”

He says all the efforts for continuous improvement start with communication and fostering a healthy dialogue with workers.

PUG has put in place systems for employees to bring forward suggestions and concerns, says the company’s director of human resources and safety, Carrissa McCaw. Workers also make use of a system for reporting hazards, near misses and incidents.

“Employees, I believe, are becoming a lot more comfortable in presenting ideas they have or any concern that they have and making sure that those are getting addressed, especially around the whole side of prevention and being proactive,” McCaw says.

Addressing issues and concerns swiftly and efficiently is the most important part of the communication process, and one that workers certainly appreciate.

Roger Ferguson, an electric operations technician with PUG, says workers have generally felt they can report any incident or near miss to their managers without fear of potential repercussions.

“If you bring it forward, it’s dealt with in the proper manner. We are positive with our whole investigation, in trying to eliminate that from happening again,” Ferguson says.

Workers also never feel the need to take shortcuts on the job, he says. The tone management has set and filtered down through the organization was that safety takes priority over productivity.

“There’s absolutely no pressure from a worker’s standpoint to complete any work or project without taking a look at the safety end of it first,” says Ferguson, who is also co-chair of the joint health and safety committee at PUG.

Over the last three years, PUG has started investing in alternative, renewable energy sources for power generation. Even with these new ventures, however, safety is still at the top of the company’s priorities, as new technologies present different risks for employees’ health and safety.

Stephenson says while it has been a “learning curve” for the company, the same principles of safety management still apply, even to brand new projects.

“A bit of it is learning as you go with the new technology, and developing operating safety practices around that technology,” explains Stephenson. “But we still rely on the same fundamentals that we do for any other type of our operation — which is a healthy atmosphere of identification of new and key risks, and dealing with practices to mitigate any safety concerns around that.”

Moving forward, McCaw says the company wants to continue to strengthen its reporting system to encourage more feedback from workers, not just on safety concerns, but on areas for continuous improvements as well.

For Stephenson, it can never be overemphasized how complacency can potentially bring down everything the company has worked for.

“The more that we can dialogue about the potential risks and improvements, the better off we are in terms of fighting complacency and continuing to move forward as our track record shows,” Stephenson says.

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