American Water’s commitment to safety is paramount, and safety responsibilities are embedded throughout the company. Sadly, the need for continued focus was highlighted by three fatalities in 2011 and 2012, the first at American Water in over 10 years. The company strongly recommitted to employee safety by thoroughly investigating the circumstances of each fatality, implementing enterprise-wide corrective actions and putting programs in place to embed safety into the American Water way of working.
Because of the corrective actions identified, work processes have been revised, practices and procedures have been updated with employees trained on the enhancements, behavioral safety programs are being implemented, safer tools and equipment have been adopted, and training modules are more robust and comprehensive.
A key part of our philosophy is to reinforce a culture of responsibility among our employees – not only for their own safety but also for their colleagues. For this reason, employees who were present when the fatalities occurred have been involved in communicating our revised safety program, to help make safety real for their colleagues. In addition we share information on safety incidents with employees and management in a timely manner so that they are aware of incident circumstances and can address these to ensure that there are no reoccurences.
We have put new programs in place to foster employee collaboration and active participation in identifying and implementing safety solutions, and to increase awareness among all employees for minimizing exposures that can lead to accident and injury risk. With a continuous focus on reducing exposure to risks, we build wider understanding and a stronger foundation for safe working. This also extends to our contractors who must meet safety qualification criteria before perfoming work for the company.
It is our policy that every contractor complies with federal, state and local occupational health and safety regulations. Safety performance is a key criteria in determining if contractors are fit to work for us, and it is our goal to ensure that they meet - or exceed - the safety standards we set for our own employees. If contractors do not meet the safety qualification requirements they cannot bid on our projects.
Developing Our Safety Culture
Actions and Commitments
Empowering Employees to Choose Safety
We have recognized that employee-led and management-supported safety programs are critical to sustaining effective programs and driving continuous safety performance improvement. The concept is taking hold and evidence can be seen across the company.
For example, in New Jersey, Safety Observation Teams have been formed whose purpose is to provide peer-to-peer safety feedback on observed activities. These teams are led and organized by employees with management support, providing time and resources to conduct the observations.
In Missouri, a Safety Culture Council has been established, comprising employees from across the state. It serves as a forum to discuss safety issues and recommend solutions that are reviewed and implemented.
Improving Our Near-miss Procedures
A near-miss is any condition or action that could have caused injury, illness or equipment/property damage, but did not. In January 2015, we introduced a formal enterprise-wide near-miss reporting process. Employees who have been involved in or witnessed a near-miss incident, or have identified an unsafe condition, can report it through the internet or by telephone to a designated member of staff. We operate a “no fault” system to encourage reporting. Employees can report without fear of discipline, or if they prefer, choose to report anonymously.
Our near-misses are tracked by management, investigated by safety staff, and corrective actions are implemented before injury occurs. Each employee who reports a near-miss is kept informed of the outcome. Findings are disseminated to relevant team members on a weekly basis and a discussion held to identify how future incidents can be avoided locally.
Promoting the recognition, reporting, investigation, and correction of near-miss incidents and conditions, is fundamental to an environment of safety awareness and a continuous drive to lower exposures. Our ultimate goal is zero accidents and injuries. To achieve this, we need to ensure all employees are committed to a high-performing safety culture. Near-miss reporting is one of the measures of this culture, and our target for 2015 is a 20 percent improvement in the number of near-misses reported between Q1 and Q4.
Response to Freedom Industries Chemical Spill
In January 2014, an undetermined amount of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) leaked into the Elk River from a storage tank at a facility owned by Freedom Industries. This spill occurred just upstream from West Virginia American Water’s largest treatment and distribution center in Charleston, West Virginia, leaving residents across parts of nine counties without potable drinking water.
West Virginia American Water took immediate action to ensure that the health and safety of customers and employees was the number one priority. Plant staff visited the site of the spill to obtain more information, and increased treatment and monitoring immediately. West Virginia American Water worked closely with state agencies to issue a “Do Not Use” order to all customers served by the Kanawha Valley Plant, and to develop a plan to restore full water service. Members of the team set up a 24/7 local hotline, developed an interactive web-based map, which was visited more than two million times, and produced informational materials to distribute to the public. In addition, they deployed 14 water tankers and purchased 35 truckloads of bottled water, providing bulk water to customers for seven weeks following the spill.
West Virginia American Water employees and the interagency team worked around the clock for weeks, with the goal of returning drinking water to its longstanding high quality as soon as possible. They conducted a thorough evaluation and carried out rigorous tests at the plant. Once they were confident that no traces of the chemical existed in the system and had fully restored the water to its original quality, they began taking deliberate steps based on comprehensive evaluations to address other issues raised by this event. This included supplementing the source water protection planning, exploring alternate water sources, and making enhancements to the emergency customer notification system.
Lessons were learned at all levels from this incident, and we are pleased to report that other states are now looking at what happened and making preparations should a similar event occur in their communities. Following the spill, Dr. Peter Grevatt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Ground Water & Drinking Water, discussed West Virginia American Water’s response:
“In my view [West Virginia American Water] did what they absolutely had to do in that circumstance. They had this chemical coming in, people were detecting it just by being able to smell it, and we didn’t know much about what it was. The only thing to do was to tell people that they couldn’t use the water without cutting off the intake because we needed to have the water available for fire suppression and other emergencies.”
We are proud of how West Virginia American Water handled the Freedom Industries chemical spill, and continue to work to improve and progress business operations. Last summer, West Virginia American Water installed analytical equipment and built a new lab at the Kanawha Valley treatment plant. It is going beyond what is required by new state legislation and installing source water monitoring technologies at our treatment facilities, at a cost of approximately $30,000 per facility.