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October 2012

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Tragedy to Triumph at First Energy's Toledo Edison

In May 2009, members of Toledo, Ohio, Local 245 were alarmed when Bruce Bartos, a senior lineman in his 37th year at Toledo Edison, died from injuries sustained during an annual training procedure required by OSHA.

Bartos, who loved gardening, woodworking, University of Michigan football and spending time with his two children and six grandchildren, had mounted a bucket and was performing a self-rescue exercise when he fell about eight feet and broke his leg. Two days later, he succumbed to an injury-related blood clot.

The piercing irony of losing a fellow member during a yearly training exercise shook workers' confidence in Toledo Edison's safety program.

For both union members and managers, the question was: Could this tragedy be channeled into improving safety on the job? Three years later, the answer is a reverberating yes.

Local 245 Assistant Business Manager Ken Erdmann, a second-generation Toledo Edison lineman, says confidence has been restored through a partnership approach to safety. "The message is that labor and management must always work together with regard to safety in the workplace," says Erdmann, who was strongly supported by the International office, the Fourth District, Local 245 and managers at Toledo Edison, a subsidiary of First Energy.

Dennis James, a 20-year member of Local 245 who serves as First Energy's advanced safety representative, helped establish a 2010 "Speak up for Safety" program. In turn, the first group of union members from each department at the utility was selected by their co-workers as safety ambassadors to identify safety issues on the job and promptly address them with management and their local union leaders. "If we don't find out that something out in the field is broken," says James, "we can't fix it." The bottom-up approach, he says, represents a dramatic change in workplace culture.

"When I was an apprentice, we were told to keep quiet. We were only needed to work from the neck down," says James. Today, he says, "Even younger workers have the gall to speak up for safety and most senior leaders respect their concerns." And rather than simply focusing on the negative when safety rules are broken, managers are encouraged to accompany their directives with positive feedback on other aspects of their crew's performance.

Underscoring the parties' safety focus, a memorandum of agreement was signed providing for the appointment of a full-time union safety and training representative to visit crews, observe safety practices and identify remedial training to improve the safety culture.

Robert Hawkins, a 28-year Local 245 member, began serving as the union's full-time safety representative in February. He had planned on retiring July 1, but says, "This position is something that was needed 30 years ago. I took the job — which was designed to be rotated every six months — because I knew that I would be trusted by our members and, with my experience, I could jump hurdles and knock barriers down to make it work."

Hawkins, who has served for 16 years on a regional safety committee started by First Energy's predecessor, says his passion for safety began in 1992 when his partner was fatally electrocuted by 480 volts. In the wake of the finger-pointing after the accident, Hawkins says, "The most important thing was, 'Here is a buddy who is never going home to see his wife and children again.'" He says, "I gave my wife a hug and kiss and promised her that I would take ownership of my own safety and return home every night just as I left that morning."

Today, Hawkins conducts safety audits, including reporting back to a director on whether workers are properly using personal protective equipment. To maintain trust, he leaves off their names and truck numbers. When a particular violation — like failure to wear rubber boots — is widespread, he says, rather than targeting individuals, group meetings are held to underscore the importance of wearing safety equipment. Information on how to reduce safety violations now more often comes from the director than from front-line managers, thus carrying more authority and isolating the importance of improving safety performance from all other issues between managers and crews.

One day a month, Local 245 leaders and Toledo Edison directors drive around visiting work crews soliciting safety concerns.

Chad Weasel, an eight-year substation electrician who has worked as a safety ambassador for a year, says the new program has led First Energy to overhaul vehicles for safety. He says, "Safety ambassadors are a channel our guys can go through where they can bring up issues without getting chewed out or ignored."

During the first week of June, linemen, substation operators, meter workers and associated employees gathered for yearly OSHA refresher training at Toledo Edison's third annual safety fair. While managers coordinated the event, safety ambassadors directed a new group each day through all of the training sessions, recording their progress.

Hawkins advises others who want to establish joint programs to appoint members who are dedicated to safety and will work hard to overcome initial hurdles. He says they need to practice the "three P's" — passion, perseverance and praise.

Weasel says the benefits of safety awareness on the job spill over to the home. "I now make sure that my family, too, is working with the safest equipment, from trampolines to soccer balls."


After the tragic death of a co-worker in 2009, members of Toledo, Ohio, Local 245 and their managers at Toledo Edison established a bottom-up approach to safety that has resulted in fewer hazardous conditions and improved equipment at the utility.