It was 1985.  We were setting the steel for a deep caisson foundation for large transmission poles on the edge of a major — and dry — riverbank and the foreman was a wreck. The crane was undersized; the ground was unstable; the 60-foot rebar cage was being threaded into the cased excavation, displacing small amounts of bentonite slurry that only further compromised the job site. To this day, I remember the look of anxious fear on the foreman's face as he called the owner of the contracting company for help. Fortunately, that day, cooler heads prevailed and the foundation was poured with no incident.

We work in a dangerous industry.

Historically, the electric utility industry has among the highest worker accident and fatality rates in the country — and the world. Many utility headquarters lobbies and operations centers have memorials to the linemen who have died during their duties.

Yet much has been accomplished throughout the decades to improve the recognition and appreciation of safety.

Burns & McDonnell has developed a strong safety culture over the last decade. In our Transmission & Distribution Group, for example, our employee-owners and subcontractors recently recorded two full years without an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recordable incident on any of our projects. Our current company-wide Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) and Days Away, Restrictions and Transfers (DART) are 0.15 and .05 respectively — these include subcontractor work hours associated with our projects. These results place Burns & McDonnell in the top 1 percent of safety performance for all contractors nationwide.

How did we achieve these numbers? And, more importantly, how do we improve upon them? In the simplest terms, it requires developing and maintaining a safety focused "live-work-play!” culture   among all of our more than 5,300 employee-owners and the hundreds of contractors and vendors that support our operations on some of the most complex and challenging projects in the world.

How Did We Get Here?

As with most companies with exemplary safety records, a culture of safety started at the top. In 2004, Burns & McDonnell named Greg Graves chief executive officer, only the sixth CEO in the company’s history, and he immediately made the company aware of his goals and initiatives to “make our clients successful.”

Taking the reins, he made a list of things he was going to do in his new role, and at the top of that list was to make Burns & McDonnell one of the safest engineering and construction firms in the world.

The first step in this process was defining what “safe” looked like at Burns & McDonnell. He formed a team to look critically at the company’s risks, both from a corporate perspective as well as a project perspective.

The next step was establishing a successful safety program that would align with our strategy. Over the past 12 years Burns & McDonnell has implemented several programs to strengthen not only our safety processes but also our overall culture. Some of the more notable programs were our Task Safety Observation Program (Behavioral Recognition Program), subcontractor prequalification program and a robust training initiative. We also realized that improving the culture at Burns & McDonnell would only get us so far; we’d also need to improve the culture of the entities that we work with — our clients and, particularly, our subcontractors.

There are several good examples of ways to promote engagement with these groups. We started by investing in and maintaining a safe workplace. It may sound simple, but when people see the effort and commitment demonstrated by management towards creating a culture where safety is a value they immediately want to be part of the solution. Coupled with this effort was the creation of a system to track and prevent safety concerns.

At Burns & McDonnell we implemented an electronic employee concern notification system as well as an incident management system. These were developed to give our employee-owners a simple way to voice their concerns and suggestions. These contributed to our folks being actively engaged in improving their safety climate.


While safety training generally isn’t considered the most exciting aspect of a project — especially due to the highly technical, and sometimes dry, subject matter — there’s no denying its importance.

Training is vital to any successful safety program. Not only is it required by law for certain tasks, but good safety training helps people identify hazards, understand expectations, be able to accurately evaluate risk, and know what to do to see that hazards do not negatively affect themselves or others.

In 2015, Burns & McDonnell employee-owners participated in more than 7,000 hours of safety-related training. We understand the investment that this requires, but we also embrace the value this extensive training brings to our performance as it relates to our goal.

Our largest division, the Transmission & Distribution Group, has the depth and experience to successfully deliver the industry's most challenging and complex projects — and, because of this, some of our proudest achievements include:

Greater Springfield Reliability Project (GSRP) – Eversource Energy

As part of a comprehensive set of power transmission projects designed to improve reliability and system flexibility in several New England states, construction on the Greater Springfield Reliability Project commenced in late 2010 and was completed three years later in 2013. Project highlights include:

  • 35 circuit miles of new 345-kV
  • 60 circuit miles of 115-kV overhead transmission line
  • 13 new or rebuilt substations/switching stations
  • Placed in service ahead of schedule and under budget by $40 million
  • Upon completion, the GSRP had achieved more than 2.9 million work hours without an injury resulting in a DART. In addition the project completed with a Total Recordable Incident Rate of 0.43
  • Engineering News-Record recognized it as Project of the Year in the New England region

Sunrise Powerlink – San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

This new 117-mile high voltage transmission line provided additional capacity and reliability to the overall power infrastructure in Southern California while connecting a significant renewable energy resource area to a large load center. The $1.9 billion project started at the desert floor, passed through rugged mountainous terrain and spanned numerous canyons. Due to the project’s complexity, more than 35 helicopters were flying daily during peak construction and more than 1,000 construction workers were deployed across the project site. Other highlights include:

  • 92 miles of single-circuit 500-kV transmission line comprised of lattice steel structures
  • 22 miles of double-circuit 230-kV transmission line comprised of both lattice steel and steel pole structures
  • 6 miles of 230-kV double-circuit underground transmission line
  • Placed in service on schedule and on budget
  • Exemplary safety record with no notices of violations
  • Winner, 2013 Golden State ACEC Award for Engineering Excellence

How Will We Improve Our Safety Performance?

The short answer to this question is two words: commitment and effort. Improvement starts with who we are at our core, and the very foundation of Burns & McDonnell begins with our employee-ownership.

Denny Scott, our chief financial officer, says it best: “When you treat an employee like an owner, you get an engaged employee. That leads to more commitment and productivity and safer projects. We get everyone pulling the same direction, which leads to a sustainability and continual improvement that will carry us for the next 100 years.”

Because of our employee-ownership, when we’re asked to engage and help with our safety program it’s not seen as an imposition but as an opportunity to accomplish something significant.

Burns & McDonnell and our subcontractors safely execute approximately $2.6 billion in engineering- and construction-related work. And when it comes to safety performance, there’s no bland “follow these requirements and everything will go as planned” mentality. That’s because, to us, safety isn’t about rules or requirements — it’s about safe execution of those processes.

And that is where safety really starts, with the people responsible for carrying out the work. Make no mistake about it, safety is about people.

Jamie Butler has nearly 30 years of experience in the construction industry and serves as the vice president and director of corporate safety and health at Burns & McDonnell.