by Andrea Doyle | January 15, 2013
Last October, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on more than a dozen states and is said to have caused $40 to $50 billion in damage. People lost their homes and businesses, and more than 8 million people were left without power for days - some for weeks. Though not on the radar of the general public, safety programs have made a significant contribution to the recovery process.

According to most experts, safety programs have a huge impact on a company's bottom line. In many cases, when a company's accident rate goes down, so do its insurance rates. In turn, productivity increases, which is critical in times of crisis. "Without the implementation of a safety program before a catastrophe, employees would be unsure what actions they should take immediately, as well as down the line," explains Flynn Zaiger of Houma, LA-based Falck Productions, a division of Falck Alford, one of the leading providers of safety training to the Gulf South and surrounding areas.

Here's a look at how some safety programs are making the recovery from Hurricane Sandy a little bit smoother.

Grassroots Safety
Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G) is one of the largest combined electric and gas companies in the U.S., as well as New Jersey's oldest and largest publicly owned utility. The 109-year-old PSE&G services 1.8 million gas customers and 2.2 million electric customers in more than 300 urban, suburban, and rural communities, including New Jersey's six largest cities. On a typical day, PSE&G has 600 electrical line personnel working.

Oct. 29, when Hurricane Sandy pulverized the Northeast, was far from a typical day. "We had approximately 1.9 million of our 2.2 million customers lose power as a result of Sandy," says Rena Esposito, a PSE&G spokesperson. "Even before the storm began, we had extra personnel from other states ready to help restore power once the storm passed and it was safe to work. PSE&G had 4,500 line, tree, and substation personnel working around the clock."

This expanded team began restoring power on Oct. 30 and by Nov. 3, 80 percent of customers had power. Full restoration was completed by Nov. 15. PSE&G relied on their culture of safety to ensure the workers remained safety conscious while they dealt with the disaster. "We want everyone to work safely every day; that's our culture," explains Esposito. "We don't do this with monetary incentives but rather through grassroots efforts - from safety reminders posted at company locations to daily safety discussions before crews go on the job. Every employee knows what's expected - always wear personal protective equipment, look out for co-workers, and stop the job if something's not safe."

PSE&G also understands the importance of recognition in ensuring safety. PSE&G Vice President Awards ceremonies are held to recognize utility divisions that have gone accident-free for 12 months and uphold PSE&G's safety procedures. During the ceremony, plaques of recognition are distributed. Awards of valor are also given and recently, the PSE&G Award of Valor was given to a PSE&G appliance service specialist who saved a man in an apartment fire. Another simple but effective recognition tool is a T-shirt with the PSE&G logo, a division or district's name, and a safety message. One of PSE&G's most powerful recognition tools is having Ralph LaRossa, president and COO of the company, as well as his peers recognize individuals and groups who achieve safety milestones, adds Esposito.

Linda Wodele, relationship manager for Hinda Incentives, agrees. "The most successful safety incentive programs have successful safety habits at their core. People are creatures of habit and fall back on what they know. If their habits are strong they will hold up in a crisis situation such as Hurricane Sandy and the groundwork for working safely will be in place," says Wodele. "We have seen an uptick of at least 15 to 20 percent in safety incentives in the last year. Our safety solutions take a behavioral approach to remind people to do the right thing on a daily basis."

A Safe Rebuild
The construction industry is one where safety is of paramount importance. According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), nearly 6.5 million people work at approximately 252,000 construction sites across the nation on any given day. The fatal injury rate for the construction industry is higher than the average in all other industries.

The construction industry is gearing up as Barclays' economic research team reports that damage costs from Sandy may reach $50 billion. The need to rebuild will put stress on the industry and expose construction firms and their employees to a greater risk of injury, industry experts predict. When there is a need for a massive construction effort like the one needed to rebuild areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, there will be an emphasis put on speed.

"Outside influences will stress that the rebuilding needs to be done quickly, which makes job site safety even more essential," reports Michael Kelleher, director of sales and operations for Kelleher Enterprises, an Ann Arbor, MI-based company dedicated to boosting individual and team performance. "Plus, workers will be operating in unstable areas due to the environmental impact of the storm. The firms that have successful safety programs in place will be at an advantage because their employees will have safety protocol engrained in their daily work. Potential accident situations will be identified by those on the ground before an injury occurs. Safety incentive programs can effectively complement the training and communication programs that construction firms use to influence the behaviors of their employees while on the job. Firms with effective programs in place can overcome the additional risk of operating in areas devastated by Sandy."

One of Kelleher Enterprises' clients is Walbridge, one of America's largest privately owned construction companies. Walbridge takes safety seriously and has several safety incentive recognition programs in place. Mark LaClair, Walbridge's safety, health, and environmental assistant vice president, uses seatbelts as a metaphor for its incentive recognition program. "You wear them for your protection in an accident, not because it's the law. That's the same with our incentive recognition program. We reward the behavior," he explains.

Walbridge does not base its incentive recognition program on incident rates; instead it focuses on recognizing positive behavior. For example, if two workers are installing something overhead and are on an aerial lift and have done everything possible to protect themselves and the work area, they may be handed a recognition card. They can instantly win something like a flashlight, tape measure, cooler, or thermos. There is also the possibility that they could win a $100 gift that they can select on a website.

"We prefer smaller dollar amount winners," says LaClair. "We'd much rather have 10 different $100 winners than one $1,000 winner. We want the culture of safety to be widespread."

Wodele of Hinda also recommends reinforcing safe behavior by encouraging prevention and rewarding achievements through spot awards. Hinda's "Scratch & Win" cards are designed with this in mind, as they immediately and quickly recognize and reinforce safe work habits. The Scratch & Win cards have points loaded on them that can be redeemed for merchandise. "These types of awards are particularly popular as they encourage companies to take a preventative, day-to-day approach to safety," says Wodele.