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Fleet in Focus: Northern Powergrid

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When your core business involves dealing with live electricity, working in substations and managing overhead power lines, safety cannot be seen as a nice-to-have; it’s a philosophy which must form the bedrock of every activity and decision.

Northern Powergrid is responsible for the supply of electricity to nearly four million homes across Yorkshire and the north-east, from north Lincolnshire to the Northumbrian border. The nature of its business means the company’s activities and service delivery are strictly regulated by watchdog Ofgem, and its engineers have to work 24/7, 365 days a year to respond to failures or power cuts.

Chris Charlton, road risk manager, joined Northern Powergrid in 2009. Formerly head of strategic road policing at North Yorkshire Police, Charlton’s aim is to encourage and foster a safe driving environment, and reduce the company’s road risk – and, ultimately, accident and injury.

“The company started its road risk programme in 2007, led by a guy from one of the local IAM groups, who was one of our staff. He took it to a certain level, but there was a realisation that the programme needed a fresh point of view from an outsider.”

Sitting within the health, safety and environmental team, Charlton manages road risk across the company’s fleet of 1,900 vehicles – consisting of more than 800 cars, 750 vans and 4x4s, and 65 heavier commercial vehicles. Northern Powergrid’s commercial fleet is leased from Vehicle Lease and Service, a joint venture between the company and Northumbrian Water.

Responsibility for fleet management and maintenance rests with another colleague. “I predominantly look after industrial, technical, management and admin staff within the field operations teams, which represents around half of our staff, although I take a broader view across the whole business,” Charlton says.

He estimates that more than 90% of staff will drive on business at some time during their career, whether that is a commercial basis, as an incidental part of their job, or just dropping off the post.

“We want our staff to go home safely at the end of every day. Our staff our important to us, and we want them to carry on working for us. Keep them safe, and everybody benefits.”

Although the business is regional, it works across a challenging and varied patch – the conurbations of Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle and Sunderland alongside vast rural areas such as the Pennines, the Northumbrian borders and the North Yorkshire Moors.

Northern Powergrid’s drivers, therefore, will encounter a variety of driving situations throughout their working life, and it’s Charlton’s job to ensure they remain safe throughout.

Charlton’s approach to road safety is modular – with lots of small initiatives continually taking place across the business. “We don’t tend to put all our eggs in one basket. There are a variety of methods we use across the business, and a lot of it is about communication.

“We want to keep road safety and road risk at the forefront of people’s minds, and keep the message relevant and topical.”

Every driver receives a copy of the Highway Code and the  company’s Safe Driving Handbook, which is updated regularly. They also have a ‘circle of inspection’, a small magnetic vehicle sticker.

This reminds them to carry out a full ‘walk-around’ inspection to check for defects before they begin driving, but also at the end of their journey. They then place the sticker on the door as a reminder to repeat the process before they next set off.

In addition to practical initiatives, there is a focus on training and the theory of road safety awareness. Charlton has created a short driver training video, to be shown at the quarterly staff safety briefings.  The nine minute video, ‘Parking and Manoeuvring Safely’, features members of field staff from across the business.

Charlton says: “Not untypically of business fleets, 60-70% of our incidents are parking and manoeuvring, and  generally relatively minor. But there’s a bent metal cost, there’s a downtime cost – so we saw the video as a bit of an investment.

 “Three of the staff included in the video were already ‘safety representatives’, part of a central programme across the company to promote positive action. It was absolutely key to have our people in the video. They enjoyed it, and learned something from it themselves as well.”

As well as making use of staff to star in the film, adding a degree of personality to the training, Charlton himself appeared, introducing and concluding the video, as well as providing the voiceover.

While his primary focus is on the field service teams – due to their mobile nature, use of commercial vehicles and shift patterns – Charlton is keen to point out that the basic road safety programme extends across the entire workforce. 

This includes the rolling three-year programme of online road safety training. “Those who don’t drive for work will probably drive into the office or depot on their commute, so we’re keen to extend the programme out as far as we reasonably can,” Charlton says.

“Much in workplace training is done to benefit the business, but enhancing driver training, skills and knowledge is one of the few areas that also enhance everyday skills.”

Northern Powergrid also operates a management engagement programme, where teams get the opportunity to discuss road safety programmes and concerns with senior management.

“All managers have to carry out a number of engagement tours in the field, and it’s a very enlightening process.”

While many drivers are field based, visits to Northern Powergrid’s 29 depots are common.

Field audit staff, along with local managers and supervisors, will randomly position themselves just outside a depot gate to perform driver observation. “It’s a proactive process, where our staff are  monitoring driver behaviour, both negative and positive.

“If a driver is coming into the yard too quickly, we’ll pick up on that. It’s a good way of us seeing what drivers are doing well, and not so well.”

Charlton says it’s not a process that takes place every day, or every week, and it operates on a more random ‘spot check’ basis.

“This year we’ve observed around 2,000 vehicle movements. Our figures show the percentage of movements flagged as issues is around 4.5%, indicating we have around 95% compliance. This has come down from 5% since we started doing it, but it still shows a good overall standard. Problems are dealt with by handing the driver either a sad face or a smiley face notice, with details of the issue – or the positive action. It’s not just a case of picking up on negative behaviour.”

The incremental approach taken by Charlton is paying off, as Northern Powergrid’s preventable accident rate has fallen significantly since the introduction of the programme.

The rate has fallen from 41 preventable vehicle accidents in 2009, to 25 at the time of writing in December 2014.

“That’s our annual figure, so we’ve already made some huge strides to get there.  We’ve got a very good driving record within our business, but we can do better.”

The preventable accident rate measurement system is a standard approach used by Northern Powergrid’s parent company, US-based Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

Measured per million miles driven, it allows a fair comparison both within different divisions of Northern Powergrid and against its  American cousins.

“It is a strictly classified range of accidents, but it is a key measurement. There has to be blame on the part of our driver, occurring within the workplace. It’s in accordance with the US national standard for accident reporting.”

Overall accident cost (not just preventable incidents) has fallen from £650,000 in 2009 to £350,000 in 2014, a reduction of almost half.

Charlton is looking at the use of safety technology across the fleet,  but is cautious, warning that it could solve one problem while  creating another.

 “We are embarking on a limited trial of reversing cameras, to determine the differences and benefits they offer over sensors. There are a lot of questions over the placement of the screen, and the judgement of the driver,” he says.

“We also have to be careful that by reducing accidents in one part of the vehicle – the back – we’re not increasing front-end accidents, as the driver comes to rely on the technology.”

The company is planning to install telematics into its commercial  vehicles next year, to give a greater understanding of driver behaviour, and training requirements.

“What gets measured gets done.  We have some crude indicators at the moment of incident rates, but what we don’t know at the moment is the detail.

“Has a driver got a 30-year incident-free driving record because he’s a good driver, or because he’s a lucky driver? I’d like to think most are safe drivers, but as a highly trained advanced driver, you never stop learning. People pick up bad habits, and being able to identify those before they cause an event puts us on the front foot.

“It’s important we can help those drivers who need help in a specific way. We won’t be giving them a general driving course, it has to be specific.

“We have a number of training providers, as well as some in-house training, so the structure is in place to react to those issues.”

Charlton hopes to roll out the telematics programme across the entire fleet, including cars, but has some hurdles to cross first.

“Our car fleet is operated on an Employee Car Ownership (ECO) scheme, so each car is on a personal contract with the driver. I know some of our drivers would have no hesitation in having the system fitted, but others wouldn’t be so keen.

“We’ve also got to consider funding for the system. With the commercial fleet, predicted savings on fuel card spend and a small accident reduction will easily cover the cost. On the car fleet, it’s a little more difficult, as fuel is on a pay and reclaim basis.

“Our challenge is to achieve the best outcome, the greatest possible buy-in, and the safest fleet.”

Charlton’s aims for the future are a continuation of the incremental, measured approach taken in the last five years. He wants to continue to grow road safety awareness throughout the workforce, and increase the frequency and importance of checks across the business, particularly in grey fleet.

“It’s getting people to understand that, even if they only drive to a training course once a year they need business insurance,” he says.

“We want to ramp up our checks and balances, and ensure drivers are properly aware of the regulations that apply to them.”


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