EHS Management

Partnership for Safety: Powerline Partnership Shows How Industry Cooperation Works

Many industries have an adversarial relationship with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in which OSHA makes rules and enforces them through inspections, fines, and penalties—often with vocal support from unions and other worker groups. The industry, for its part, fights new regulations during the rulemaking process, and then in the courts and in Congress afterward, and fights the fines and penalties through the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, sometimes making it as far as the U.S. district court system. But there’s another, more cooperative model for interaction between businesses and OSHA, and it can improve practices and save lives throughout an entire industry: the OSHA Partnership.

Electrical engineer while working laptop

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Have you considered whether a partnership could benefit your industry? Let’s take a look at how a successful, longstanding OSHA partnership has improved work practices and working conditions—and with them, injury and fatality rates—in one very dangerous line of work.

The Powerline Safety Partnership

In 2004, the CEOs of the five major electrical transmission and distribution contractors came together with OSHA, the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and a trade group, the Edison Electric Institute, to work on an industrywide safety initiative as part of the OSHA Strategic Partnership Program (OSPP). Unlike OSHA’s regulatory and enforcement programs, the Partnership program enables OSHA to work together with just about any affected group—employers, workers, professional or trade associations, labor organizations, even interested stakeholders—to encourage, assist, and recognize efforts to eliminate serious hazards and enhance workplace safety and health practices. Most partnerships are regional in scale; the Electrical Transmission & Distribution (ET&D) Partnership is one of OSHA’s few national partnerships.

Although these groups came together voluntarily, whether they could work together was, at first, an open question. In order to accomplish the partnership’s goals of data collection and the development of best practices and training materials, competitors would have to be willing to share sensitive information. They quickly discovered that they would need to quit trying to lay blame and start working together to solve problems. After what one participant described as “many months” of discussions, the partnership was able to focus less on its differences and more on protecting the men and women who keep electrical services growing and functioning. Anyone entering into an OSHA partnership should take a lesson: it may take some time to build trust, cooperation, and consensus within the partnership.

Structure of the Partnership

Initially, the ET&D partnership was made up of executives, owners, and high-level representatives. Over time, it expanded to include workers from all levels of the partner organizations. Structurally, these members were organized into three levels of teams, each with different responsibilities:

  • The executive team, made up of CEO-level management, leads the subordinate teams and provides direction for the Partnership. This team meets as needed to review progress and determine next steps.
  • The steering team is made up of partners’ safety and health personnel. It acts as a liaison between the executive team and the task teams and provides guidance to each of the task teams.
  • The task teams are made up of employees from member companies who meet as needed to focus on the specific partnership goals of data, training, best practices, and communications.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some characteristic partnership goals and some of the specific outcomes of the ET&D partnership.