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May 2016

Spotlight on Safety
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Generosity Fuels Safety in Philadelphia

It was a simple set-up. Find a good "catch" that improves worker safety and everyone on your crew gets a $25 gift card.

The program was launched by signatory contractor Matrix NAC in 2015 and every distribution maintenance and construction crew at Pennsylvania Power and Light was eligible.

"Our safety program wasn't working as well as it should have been. Not that we had lots of injuries, just too many," said Jim Collins, vice president at Matrix NAC, and a former lineman with Philadelphia Local 126.

Safety may be its own reward, but cash will still grab your attention.

It was right around Thanksgiving and Local 126 members Dave Grochowski, Kyle King, Bob Tranguch and foreman Dan Van Houdt were owed some gift cards. At their morning meeting to lay out the maintenance and construction work the linemen would be doing that day, they had an idea for a little friendly competition.

"Twenty-five dollars is a nice recognition for going above your job — even though it is for our own good — but we make a good living and we all agreed we could really brighten up someone's holiday if we gave them away," Van Houdt said. "We decided to get a little friendly competition going and see who could donate the most cards by Christmas."

A good catch is an accident that doesn't happen. A hazard or problem nipped before it blooms.

The example Collins used was a hammer someone put down on a raised platform. Some other guy comes along, doesn't see it, kicks the hammer and it drops three levels.

"Even if it doesn't hit anyone, that is an incident," Collins said. "The good catch is stopping everything before something happens."

The good catch program is designed to overcome an ugly reality of the construction business. Some companies will say safety is priority one, but workers get the message pretty quickly that is only true to a point.

"I read accident reports in this job and what I see is that is often a culture change that we need," said IBEW Director of Safety Dave Mullen. "Too many programs reward the wrong people. You want to build a successful safety culture? Acknowledge and reward people who do it right and do it right away."

The reality is, most safety programs are nearly the opposite. They punish people for pointing out safety problems, whether they are intended to be or not.

"I've worked in places where you feel almost scared about pointing out safety problems," said Van Houdt's supervisor, Kevin Fielder. "You don't want to look dumb or sound foolish or worse, you end up with the famous 'one man layoff.'"

A 'one-man layoff' is firing without a firing, Fielder said, where a company lays you off for speaking up about safety.

"A good catch isn't about who is at fault, it's about getting everybody home safely," he said. "Our job is very unforgiving. You have an accident, it will have catastrophic consequences."

After Van Houdt told Fielder about the competition, Fielder sent an email to every crew at Matrix. More people got involved. The good catches started pouring in.

News spread through Matrix all the way up to Collins. A lineman by training, Collins now oversees Matrix's $200 million electrical division. He is responsible for the jobs and safety of hundreds of IBEW members across the U.S.

Collins made an announcement: whatever his crews donated, he would double it.

In a single month, IBEW members at Matrix NAC raised nearly $2,600. All of it was donated to a local food bank and children's charities near the Philadelphia hall.

"We had a program called the 'Near Miss' and it didn't work," Collins said. "Guys simply didn't want their name on a near miss caused by their crewmates. It felt punitive, there were no incentives, and in the end the response was low."

In August 2014, Collins and his staff — Chuck Carter from Philadelphia Local 98 and Ed Milukas from Local 126 — came up with the "good catch" language and began to reward entire crews. The change in culture was immediate. Crews began looking for not just safety problems where the workers were at fault, they began reporting infrastructure problems on the network before they became failures.

Collins began sending those reports to executives at PPL. He did the same for reports that came in from crews working distribution systems owned by Atlantic City Electric, PECO and Pepco.

"The utilities love to see that we have a group of IBEW members looking their system up and down every day, finding problems and getting home safe," Collins said.

"It gives the executives a little more insight into their systems than they had before," Collins said. "If there is an incident, or worse, they would always ask how [could] this happen? Now they know."


Philadelphia Local 126 members Dave Grochowski, Dan Van Houdt, Kyle King and Bob Tranguch turned signatory contractor MatrixNAC's safety rewards program into a fundraising competition for local charity, raising nearly $2,600.