By R. Bruce Wright, CPCU
“Sometimes when we review particular utilities’ loss runs there are no backing incidents to be found, not even when we look several years back. What explains this?”
It seems as though many utilities struggle when it come to the prevention of vehicle backing accidents, especially but not exclusively with respect to their larger vehicles, such as service buckets, crew buckets, and digger/derricks. During our claims reviews I all too often see numerous cases (Sometimes even dozens in large utilities!) of backing losses among the paid fleet claims. Year after year, these claims are at or near the top of the list when loss frequencies are calculated, usually vying with yard ruts for the number one spot. There is quite a long and varied list of objects such as mailboxes, bollards, posts, parked cars, and even the corners of buildings, that apparently leap out invisibly behind backing trucks.
While most backing losses are relatively minor in cost, the potential exists for major incidents if circumstances conspire against a driver. I still remember the story one of our clients told me about an event that occurred to one of their lineman who, while driving a digger truck, stopped at an intersection, spotted a semi coming from his right on the cross road, preparing to turn onto the road the digger truck was on. Seeing that the semi’s driver needed some extra room, and being a polite and courteous driver, he reversed to back away from the corner. While doing so, he backed over and crushed the entire front 1/3 of the small Toyota that had pulled up behind him at the stop sign! Oops. The resulting injuries were minor, but when everything was finally wrapped up it still came to quite an expensive total cost.
The really frustrating thing about backing losses, to us, to our carriers, and presumably to you, is that virtually every backing loss can be prevented if drivers follow proper procedures. This brings up an interesting puzzle, namely, that while most utilities seem to have their share of these events, sometimes when we review particular utilities’ loss runs there are no backing incidents to be found, not even when we look several years back. What explains this difference?
This is the part of the article where you are likely to be waiting for me to reveal the “magic bullet,” to explain the simple, cheap, and easy procedure/device that those accident-free companies use that stops all backing accidents. Spoiler alert – you may be disappointed. It’s simple, it’s cheap, but it will require hard work!
Of course, there are a few widely touted ideas that you have undoubtedly heard about. The “Plan & Park Defensively” rule, which suggests a driver park so that he needn’t back up to leave. The “Walk Around” rule, which requires a driver to circle his perked vehicle before getting in. The “Set-out Cone” variation, which requires a driver to place a traffic cone behind (or in front and behind) the vehicle, and retrieve it (them) before driving off. The “Spotter” rule, which, as the name implies, requires any vehicle with a passenger to have that person get out and act as a guide whenever a vehicle is in reverse. The “Beeper Reverse Light” that sounds a warning when backing, though few mailboxes seem to get the message and move out of the way. Many of our clients use or have used one, two, even all of these approaches. Some have had success; many have purchased lots of replacement cones and/or disciplined lots of drivers. The latest idea is backup cameras, which in fact may offer some actual benefits, for a cost.
After having many, many conversations about backing incidents and prevention programs with utility safety officers across the country I have come to the conclusion that the secret to preventing them is not found in any of these techniques. I certainly would not tell anyone to stop using them, especially if they believe that they are helpful. But, I think the real explanation for why some of our clients don’t have these incidents while many others do, lies in the differences in company cultures. While nearly everyone says that they recognize the importance of “culture” in reinforcing the safety message, not everyone follows the same path when in comes to creating it. Here’s what I see.
Those utilities whose senior staffers “get it” with regard to this issue take to heart the need to model, reinforce, and praise the behaviors they want their workers to use. “How’s that,” you ask? It’s quite simple really. If the GM, the Ops. Manager, and the rest of the leadership group, all “walk around” their vehicles, or set out and retrieve their cones, or use spotters themselves, and do so every time they get to their vehicles, then the line workers seem to do so too. If you are now shaking your head saying to yourself, “But those rules only apply to the CDL trucks, not to the pick-ups and SUVs our managers drive,” then I think you may have just figured out one of the problems! If we impose rules on workers that add to their perceived workload or hassle factor, while exempting ourselves, is it any wonder that we would get less than full compliance? That the workers would feel dumped on? Wouldn’t you? It’s just human nature!
In addition, at utilities that seem not to incur backing losses, the leaders go out of their way to observe drivers, making an effort to catch them in the act of doing things right, so that they can congratulate and thank them for doing so. (And they quietly correct anyone who forgets.) This is how a safety culture is created, not by board policy, not by complex procedures, and certainly not by unpaid days off, but rather by showing, reinforcing, and rewarding the desired behaviors.
Okay, I know, it “says easy, does hard.” But it can be done, it has been done, and it is being done right now by some of the utilities I visit. (The ones with few or no vehicle backing incidents!)