December 2016, Vol. 243, No. 12


Case Study: Vectren’s Safety Journey from Concept to Reality

By Nancy Conder, Manager of Quality Assurance, Vectren, Evansville, IN

It is the year 2014: The industry has lived through several significant safety incidents over the last couple of years. San Bruno, CA and Marshall, MI occurred just a few short weeks apart in 2010. The East Harlem, NY incident had just occurred.

Vectren had its incident in New Albany, IN in 2011, and we know that situation could have created another national headline. So, in the three years since, the company has fortified its existing programs, enhanced procedures, improved training programs, minimized deficiencies in data and records, and modernized its gas infrastructure to meet or exceed compliance and integrity requirements.

However, by contrast, employee safety results have plateaued. With its culture of continuous improvement, Vectren engages a third party to assess the current pipeline safety program and culture, and to recommend improvements.

What began as a single assessment started Vectren’s journey into the world of risk-based business. Social media has been a flurry of commentary and finger-pointing related to incidents over the last several years. The natural gas industry has officially entered into the world of risky business.

This voyage is not for the docile or meek. Every now and then you are just going to need to say, “What the heck?” or maybe some other favorite phrase out of frustration. Saying it gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.

Recognizing an issue and its potential impact (realized or not) is a first step. How each company chooses to respond will determine its future. Vectren’s future is clear – the relentless pursuit of the safety of our workforce, assets and the public through the implementation of a safety management system (SMS).


An SMS is a systematic, deliberate approach to managing the safety of the workforce, the public and the company’s asset. It focuses on identifying and reducing risk. It is not the flavor of the month. It is where conversations about risk are intentional and occur at all levels of the organization. It is not a software package. It is all employees being empowered to raise a concern and taking action to mitigate a potential problem. It is continuously improving our processes, procedures, performance and culture. It is not a project with an implementation clock. It is an ever-evolving journey to zero incidents.

Method to Madness

Vectren uses the structured problem-solving methodology – plan-do-check-adjust PDCA) – as the foundational approach to implementing the elements of the API Recommended Practice 1173 Pipeline Safety Management Systems (API RP1173). This methodology can be applied to the SMS as a whole as well as the individual elements and the processes within the system.

The PDCA principle is at the core of Vectren’s SMS. It is designed to encourage and executing strategies and plans in line with guidelines, checking those actions for conformity and using the results to adjust the next generation of plans. This cycle is iterative and maintained to achieve continuous improvement.



Using the recommendations from the third-party assessment of Vectren’s safety and compliance cultures and the published first edition of API RP1173, the gap assessment and the SMS project plan was built. Following the PDCA cycle, Vectren began with risk management as it links key processes, operational controls, performance measures and mitigations, establishing a foundation from which to build the SMS.

Risk management leads budgeting, strategic and business unit planning processes. The entire PSMS-recommended practice is about the identification, awareness and reduction of risk. Vectren targeted activities in the elements of operational controls, safety assurance and management review that would build upon the risk-management foundation.

Vectren felt these elements would encourage and foster the most engagement, progress and empowerment. The company has continued the cycle to cover all of the elements within the PSMS-recommended practice. We did not recreate the wheel.

We leveraged existing processes like those used for integrity management, employee injury prevention, operator qualification and apprenticeship training, management of change, damage prevention, quality management, pipeline modernization, emergency response and compliance monitoring. We leveraged lessons learned from contacts in other industries such as pharmaceuticals, aviation, transportation, and medical devices.

Vectren leveraged existing Six Sigma continuous improvement and quality tools like value-stream analysis, Kaizens, structured problem-solving, peer-risk modeling and bow-tie analysis. These tools visually displayed the current state of affairs, allowing the voices of internal and external stakeholders to be heard.

Our Mental Picture

What is your mental picture of safety? Is it wearing personal protective safety gear and going home the same way you came to work? Is it following a safe job procedure? Or is it more than that? What if that picture looked more like a slideshow or maybe even a collage like this one?

Safety is no longer just employee safety but the safety of our contractors, assets and those who live and work near our assets. Safety is whatever we need it to be and it’s everyone’s responsibility.


Employee engagement is the key to any great safety culture. Vectren will drive opportunities to engage employees at all levels with a systematic process. In 2016, as part of a continuous improvement event, Vectren’s employees redefined the structure of the safety meetings and specifically defined how our workforce was to be engaged in these meetings. Standard work instructions and agenda templates are used with local visual management boards to monitor and measure progress in remediating those employee safety concerns.

Vectren continues to implement a multi-tiered SMS governance structure. It provides intentional and regular communications regarding risk identification and reduction strategies. This tiered model allocates resources to support engagement from our workforce and creates a feedback loop that extends from our frontline employees to our board of directors, starting with educational sessions and governance meetings held on a routine basis.

Near-miss reporting, through an anonymous web-based portal, promotes sharing of lessons-learned. This allows employees and contractors to report safety-related experiences or observations so that everyone can learn from those near misses. Near-miss reporting is available for any activity related to our workforce, assets or the public.

Vectren continues to foster relationships with regulatory agencies by using SMS and our ComplySMART© principles. Regular conversations about the company’s progress and path-forward vision have created opportunities for collaboration and support in both states in which we operate. 

SMS in Action

Involving workers in safety-related planning and decision-making, and empowering them to speak up when they identify hazards will help bridge the communication gap between workers and management. It also will build mutual trust and promote a shared belief that a positive safety climate is integral to getting the job done.

The SMS in-action investigations and local SMS meetings provide an excellent chance to involve employees on a regular basis. Bargaining and non-bargaining employees participate in the discussions about the work taking place, types of hazards involved and how these can be reduced or avoided. The workforce is encouraged to participate in these discussions, ask questions, highlight concerns and share ideas.

The in-action investigations involve teams that determine the scope of the issue identified, the desired mitigation plans then established with identified controls. Progress is tracked through quality assurance/quality control functions and communicated through the SMS scorecards and governance discussions. On-spot and management recognitions are given for those willing to highlight and address concerns through this process.


Have you ever been given an opportunity so bold and dynamic that you froze in panic? You don’t know where to start, or which way is up. Developing an SMS framework may feel like that at times. Remember that it is a journey. It is an exercise in changing a culture, regardless of how far along you are in your SMS maturity, who employs you, or what your role is in that organization.

Aim for progress vs. perfection: Progress is fluid while perfection is rigid. Perfection can be exhausting while progress is invigorating. Perfection tends to focus on the flaws while progress highlights the strengths and the “aha moments” of realization.

Keep it simple! Understand the current state for each of your stakeholder groups. Make the elements and the action items relatable to them. Make it personal and easily explained. Envision trying to explain SMS to a group of sixth-graders.

Since most companies already have some portion of each element of API RP1173, you may get questions like, “Don’t we already do this stuff?” The audience may ask, “How is this different than enterprise risk management or integrity management?” Think of a grilled cheese sandwich. SMS is the cheese. It is the melted center that sticks to each piece of toast. SMS is flexible and connects very specific quantitative assets or people-related risks to high-level qualitative enterprise risks.

Beyond 2016

As we venture into 2017, Vectren will be entering its second SMS risk management cycle, updating its risk register to reflect new information and mitigation activities. The company will be completing the check-and-adjust cycles for all the essential elements described in API RP1173. The quality assurance, quality control (QA/QC) testing and process effectiveness sampling programs will be initiated with necessary resources and training. As part of the adjust cycle, Vectren will expand the SMS scope beyond natural gas facilities to include electric generation, transmission and distribution assets.

Vectren and the utility industry as a whole must keep in mind that SMS is a continuous journey. There will be days for taking baby steps forward to the goals and objectives, but several days will involve adult-sized steps backward. Those hiccups are learning and growth in disguise. The journey is not about the destination, but the experience along the way.

Author: Nancy Conder is the manager of Quality Assurance for Vectren where she has worked for four years. Prior to working in utilities, Conder was in the pharmaceuticals, and pulp and paper industries in leadership roles with a focus on regulatory compliance, project management and engineering. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Evansville and a master’s degree from Murray State University.


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