The Power Of Putting A Face On Safety

What is it about a good story that can stay with you for days, weeks, possibly even years after you’ve read it? More than likely it had a personal element to it, one that really got you in the heart. Getting safety messages across often comes with the same logic as telling a good story. It’s important they stick because it could mean life or death.

Take the story of Tom Dickey. Tom has decades of experience with horizontal directional drilling; digging that leaves the surface intact while creating a tunnel underneath for utilities. He’s considered one of the best and has done a variety of directional work, even beneath rivers and lakes.

He places a high priority on safety for good reason. Tom knows from personal experience the danger that lies underground. One day, at the end of a major project, he was asked to do a small, additional section before he left.

“Instead of saying, ‘I can’t do it today. I’ll have to come back,’ I took the equipment out there,” Tom explained. “And I didn’t have my safety equipment. That truck was back at my shop because I’d already moved some of the equipment home.”

Tom did what many people do… he weighed time and convenience against safety and took a chance.

“I’d worked with it enough, I knew that I could just handle this, and you never suspect that today’s going to be the day,” he said.

He did the drilling, then knelt at the endpoint, using a shovel to make a final adjustment. He slipped and made contact with 7200 volts of electricity from underground lines.

“Everything went into slow motion,” he recalled. “As soon as I slipped and fell into it and energized myself up, I felt like I verbally said, ‘O my gosh Tom, you’ve just killed yourself.’ I knew exactly what I was into and I knew that I had made a grievous error.

“And the next thing I thought of was the family and what was my wife going to do without me, what were my kids going to go through, and what were they going to do without me.”

Within a few seconds, the fuse tripped and Tom was thrown backward, conscious and aware of flaming clothes at his hands and knees.

The pictures he paints recalling the experience are riveting and compelling. Even the most seasoned underground contractors are often affected when Tom talks about the importance of putting safety first every time – and it points to the power of personal stories.

Safety training, utility locate requirements, OSHA regulations and requirements, and a variety of procedural checklists are among numerous worker safety efforts. One might expect the number of utility dig-ins would be declining. Yet, they appear to be moving in the other direction.

The Common Ground Alliance (CGA) analysis of the 2017 Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) shows an estimated 5.5% increase in incidents over 2016 excavation-related damages to underground facilities. Is this due to more construction or is complacency becoming a bigger factor? Experts note many involved in these incidents had years of experience, knew correct safety procedures, and that they were taking a risk.

Knowledge alone is not always enough for workers to avoid life-changing incidents. Safe behavior is tied to attitude. Experienced workers are not the only ones we need to consider. Complacency, shortcuts and attitudes can affect new employees, too.

How can we shift attitudes to get safer behavior? Get personal.

Personal experiences are powerful teachers. Those who survive contact with electricity usually have life-changing injuries, suffering severe burns and loss of limbs. When a worker is seriously injured or killed, it changes many lives forever. These incidents have an exponential impact on family, friends, co-workers and communities.

When workers see people just like them, doing the things they do every day who have electrical incidents, it makes the dangers real. If what a person sees as reality is changed, it shifts one’s attitude and behavior.

Consider Tom Dickey’s experience. Everything changed for him and his family when he made contact with 7200 volts. Here is an excerpt from the video produced with Tom and his family:

Tom’s son Josh: “I just remember them calling us into the room and telling me and Mom that, if he makes it through the next 24 to 36 hours, it’s going to be a miracle. You know, people who get into electricity with the voltage that he had … don’t survive… and that he’s awake and coherent is a blessing, and you need to call in the family because he could take a turn for the worse within minutes.”

Tom’s wife Bonnie: “And the thing they said, while you’re walking around the burn unit and you’re seeing all these other patients who had been burned, you know, with fire, some type of fire accident like that. They said, actually Tom is much worse because his are internal, and what you see on these other people is exactly what their issues are but you can’t see his, and his are going to continue to get worse.”

The words in print here cannot fully convey what you see in the video as this family recalls their experiences, years after the incident. Watch Tom’s story at SafeElectricity.org/public-education/videos-library/.

Personal experiences and stories are especially well-suited for being told visually via video, pictures and more. That is significant because 90% of the information that comes into the brain is visual. People share and re-tell personal stories, increasing their impact. They generate conversation and discussion, helping to promote a climate of safety among workers… and they address attitudes critical to consistently safe behavior.

“You may get by with it a thousand times, but at some point, it can happen to you. It can happen to anybody,” Tom says. “Please, safety first.”

Those words have a much different impact and are more personally relevant coming from an incident survivor than a supervisor or trainer. Adding to the power of these stories is seeing the experience of family members through their eyes. Workers who have seen this and other stories consistently relate how powerful and important it is to hear from loved ones. Personal stories hit home and provide strong means to shift attitudes, and behavior, about safety.


Molly Hall, IOM, CAE, is executive director of the Energy Education Council (www.EnergyEdCouncil.org), a national nonprofit whose members include hundreds of utilities committed to creating a safer, smarter world. EEC’s largest outreach program is Safe Electricity® (SafeElectricity.org), a multimedia effort to provide education about electrical hazards and steps to stay safe.

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