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February 2013

Going the Distance

Meet a leading Oregon health and safety professional

Leslie Kantor, Safety manager, NW Natural

Company: NW Natural

Safety and health manager: Leslie Kantor

Workforce: 1,100

Common Hazards: Slips, trips, falls, overexertion (all resulting in strains and sprains), and flammable gas


What is your background and safety philosophy?

My background is pretty varied. I worked as an occupational therapist, firefighter EMT, HazMat responder, and incident commander before becoming a safety manager. I am a certified safety professional and have a master's degree in occupational safety. I've worked in aerospace, heavy manufacturing, light manufacturing, blood services, and the wind industry. I have been in the natural gas industry for the last three years. I've been involved with the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference and American Society of Safety Engineers in various capacities for more than 10 years.

Safety compliance is necessary and our baseline. Improving the safety culture will make compliance easy. Improving our safety culture is where the bulk of our efforts are. We use the Dupont-Bradley model of safety culture continuum to explain our safety culture journey. This model is a curve that illustrates the relationship of injury rate to type of safety culture. On the far left is a reactive safety culture with a high injury rate. As we continue to progress to the right, safety becomes more about the individual's desire and motivation to work safely – ultimately moving into interdependency, where employees help each other work safely. The curve shows the injury rate decrease as the safety culture moves toward the interdependent environment. At NW Natural, we are working from being dependent on the company to tell us to be safe, and moving into individual and team-based safety. We are enabling our supervisors and employees to manage their day-to-day safety, and use continuous improvement teams to make changes, leveraging the experience of our employees and supervisors. We emphasize recognizing safe work practices over hunting for discrepancies. Everyone from our CEO to the employee locating a gas leak or at the working end of a shovel is involved in positive safety at some level. An interdependent safety culture is our goal.

What are some of the unique safety challenges you have faced?

My challenges are not much different than those faced by any safety professional, The aging workforce that exists in utilities is one of the more interesting challenges that allows me to tap into my occupational therapy background as well as my safety skills. Ergonomics, prevention through design, tool and process design, and the improving and maintaining the health of our employees are front and center right now.

One of the main challenges I found upon joining NW Natural was the traditional injury-based cash incentive program. It was a program that was in place for many years. If a particular group went injury-free for a certain length of time, the group would get a cash award. The amount of the award grew with the length of time they went injury-free. It became apparent that this program inadvertently created an environment where it would be advantageous not to report lesser injuries to maintain eligibility for the award. In response, a continuous improvement team was formed with employees at all levels, including management. I provided the team with details of the issue and some guidance in terms of not disciplining for injuries. I left the group with an outside facilitator for one week and my commitment to what they would come up with as a solution. The results of the team's efforts stunned me and were better in terms of current safety wisdom than I had hoped for. They had completely separated the money from safety recognition and, instead, put it in a separate fund to be shared by all affected employees to offset the costs of out-of-pocket personal safety gear. It is a straightforward program that is not connected to reporting injuries in any way. Recognition turned into what we call positive safety exchanges, or discussions regarding safe work practices that were observed. That program continues to evolve with the original continuous improvement team's guidance.

Since you work for a utility, your crews may be out during weather or other emergencies. How do they stay focused on safety during those intense situations?

Our crews are very skilled at what they do. In addition to years of experience and training, our technical training department recently finished an emergency response scenario-based training program. All field responders are faced with emergency scenarios to practice decision-making and tasks in a stressful but safe environment. This allows for enhanced ability to act safely during the actual event. An exciting development is the near completion of our new "training town." This is a simulated street of housing, complete with the ability to create gas leaks and simulated leaks for crews to locate and repair under varying conditions. It's another opportunity to practice leadership and problem solving in a controlled situation. This site will also have confined space and fall protection props, and a CDL driving training course to enhance other areas of safety training.

How do you keep your crews engaged in safety issues day to day?

The entire population at NW Natural keeps our crews engaged in safety every day. Supervisors and safety committee members facilitate monthly safety meetings at each location. Management and executives discuss safety on their site visits. All employees have received training in recognizing employees for safe work practices. Mixed continuous improvement teams are being used to improve various aspects of safety. Employees are encouraged to make safety improvements and raise safety issues.

What advice do you have for other safety and health managers hoping to make a difference?

Focus efforts on engaging the entire population in safety. Educate and empower employees and supervisors to facilitate their own safety. Help with guidelines and get out of their way where you can. The results can be stunning.


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