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Best Practices: Willmar Municipal Utilities

Power Up for Safety

At Willmar Municipal Utilities, safety hazards come from what you'd expect, like handling power lines and maintaining meters. Perils for some of the 56 employees at this utility company also come from things you may not expect, such as dog bites and hazards of winter weather.

Bill Schindele has logged more than two decades as the company's safety director. Bill oversees a diverse safety program serving office staff, power plant personnel, line crews, the meter department, the water department and the hot water heating department.

"We usually go up to five years without any reportable lost time," said Bill. "Our goal is no reported incidents whatsoever. Over the last ten years, we've averaged two or three reportable incidents a year. In those ten years, only three or four people have had any lost time, and nothing has happened that's created a long lost time. This record is important, because most of the time if you have a bad mistake or injury in the line crew they probably will not have a second chance."

Hazards in this diverse operation include handling sulfuric acid in the power plant; maintenance people working with fast moving parts and heavy objects; chain saw safety when trimming trees; handling chlorine in the water department; boiler maintenance; installing and taking out meters; and ergonomic issues among the office staff.

"A growing safety concern is the possibility of public violence, at the office counter where we accept bills and payments and at locations where we sometimes have to disconnect power because of non-payment of bills."

Because of this diversity of safety issues, each department is responsible for its own area. "These people know what they're dealing with. For example, those working with electricity are all trained to make sure if something needs to be de-energized, it is. Same thing is true with the power plant if working with machinery."

Monthly meetings ensure that everybody gets to listen to something about safety — AWAIR, right-to-know and first aid, for example. "Sometimes we run two different sessions so we can make 100% attendance," Bill commented. As part of a wellness program, the company also covers part of the membership fees at a fitness center. An Employee Assistance Program also helps employees.

"We use a lot of posters we've gotten through Minnesota Safety Council," added Bill. "Anytime we see posters in magazines we put them up. We put out a newsletter. Minutes of meetings are passed on to employees. At the end of the year we have an awards and recognition night and we give out safety awards."

Make-up of safety committee
Each department sends a representative to the safety committee — about six people. They rotate approximately every two years. One union staff steward also serves on the committee at all times. A secretary types minutes and distributes them to the rest of the employees. Employees are encouraged to talk to a person in their department who's on the committee about a problem if they're uncomfortable approaching management directly.

Near misses
Employees have to help each other avoid the ego factor in learning from near misses. If someone thinks they've done something stupid, sometimes they don't want to report it. "We encourage self reporting, and if people see something wrong they report it," Bill said. "If they need new equipment they report it. We've never been turned down by the general manager. Of course there's a concern of cost, but if that means safer working conditions then there's no question. We do it."

In the area of work station design, Willmar Utilities tapped an outside consultant. Some employees were sitting too high or too low. The company invested in new desks and chairs. Then several years later, some people complained about back pain, so new chairs were purchased. "We haven't had anybody out with tendinitis or carpal tunnel," Bill announced.

"Overall, I think we try to run a tight ship and get people so they're thinking and working safely all the time. The employees do an excellent job of that."

December 1999
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