Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Eastern Municipal Water District’s Full-Spectrum Safety Program

Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD) provides water, wastewater, and recycled water services to nearly 900,000 residents of a rapidly growing area in Riverside County, California. Its significant size and wide variety of activities mean that its more than 600 employees are exposed to a number of on-the-job hazards, from heat to high-voltage electricity to work in confined spaces. To address this, EMWD has a well-developed safety, risk, and emergency management system that includes training, risk reporting, and the identification of all risks associated with its equipment. 

In this interview, EMWD General Manager Paul Jones and Director of Safety, Risk and Emergency Management Doug Hefley tell Municipal Water Leader about the various aspects of EMWD’s safety programs. 

 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be in your current positions. 

Paul Jones: I am the general manager of EMWD and have been here since July 2011. Previously, I was the general manager of Irvine Ranch Water District in Orange County for 12 years. I have about 28 years of experience in the water and engineering fields in both the public and private sectors. My career has focused on water resource project development, special district management, and related subjects. I am a civil engineer by training, having studied at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, and I am a licensed professional engineer in the state of California. 

Doug Hefley: I am currently EMWD’s director of safety, risk, and emergency management and have been with EMWD for 30 years. I started in the operations division, and about 18 years ago, I began to focus on the safety and risk management division and started obtaining education in that field. I have a bachelor’s degree in business administration and criminal justice and have added extensive training in behavioral safety and risk management through the years, including a certification in emergency management. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about EMWD. 

Paul Jones: EMWD is a municipal water, wastewater, and recycled water service provider. We serve close to 900,000 residents of the southwestern portion of Riverside County in Southern California. The 555‑square-mile service area encompasses seven cities as well as unincorporated county areas. We serve about 150,000 water connections, approximately 246,000 sewer connections, and nearly 600 recycled water service connections. We have a little over 600 employees. We are a full-service retail and wholesale utility service provider and have a diverse residential, commercial, and production agriculture customer base. 

This part of Southern California is a high-growth area. We have been growing at a rate of approximately 4,200 equivalent dwelling units a year, which means we are adding the equivalent of a small city to our service area annually. As a result, we have a substantial number of capital improvement projects, with about 30 construction projects active right now. That capital program is valued at about $472 million through the year 2024. 

EMWD's Circle of Safety program requires employees to place a cone behind their vehicles and walk around their vehicles to inspect them before they move the vehicle again.

Municipal Water Leader: What are the primary areas of safety concern for a municipal water district like EMWD? 

Paul Jones: One of the guiding principles that form the foundation of our strategic initiatives and corporate culture is to protect the health and safety of our employees and the public, and to do so without compromise. That particular principle is the basis of our safety program and has been formally adopted by our publicly elected board of directors. There is also a solid alliance between our labor union and our management team, which fosters a leadership-driven safety ethic. This is complemented by a comprehensive safety culture that is fully embraced by our staff. All staff members are committed to providing a safe work environment both for their fellow employees and for the community at large. They complete robust safety-training programs and use the equipment and resources EMWD provides. This is critical because the water, wastewater, and recycled water business has inherent risks. For example, many positions require work in hazardous environments, including confined spaces, trenches, and construction and repair sites; the use of heavy equipment; or the handling of hazardous materials, including chemicals. With these potential risks, it’s important that we embrace a comprehensive safety approach that ensures that employees return home healthy and uninjured at the end of every workday. 

Municipal Water Leader: How is EMWD able to proactively deal with and reduce these safety risks? 

Paul Jones: As I mentioned before, we have a vigorous safety culture, but that culture is not driven by mandates. We have tried to make it a culture that is promoted and supported by the staff and our board of directors. The most prominent example of this commitment is EMWD’s participation in the California Division of Occupational Safety’s (Cal/ OSHA) Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). We were the first water agency in the United States and the first public agency in California to be certified by Cal/OSHA as a Cal VPP star site, which is a top-tier safety certification. The Cal VPP star site certification requires the awardee to implement the highest level of safety standards at all levels of the organization along with continuous improvement in safety programs and practices. As part of this, we undergo a multiday audit by a team of Cal/OSHA employees and professionals every 3 years. The audit includes detailed record inspections, site evaluations, safety program efficacy reviews, and employee interviews. We’ve maintained our Cal VPP star site rating for 20 years, which is only possible due to the commitment of everyone from the board of directors to our individual employees. It also requires the support of an excellent, high-functioning safety and risk-management team, which is led by our director of safety, Doug Hefley. 

Doug Hefley: One of the key points of the Cal VPP program is that it is built on continuous improvement. That is something we demonstrate to Cal/OSHA on a regular basis. As an example, for decades EMWD used gaseous chlorine as a part of the wastewater treatment process. It provided essential disinfection and was cost effective, but it involved a significant risk for the employees who received deliveries and worked with the product. EMWD took the initiative a couple of years ago to decommission gaseous chlorine at all four of our regional water reclamation facilities and convert those facilities to sodium hypochlorite. The conversion significantly reduced the risks of leakage associated with transporting, handling, and transferring the chemical from delivery vehicles to our actual storage facilities. Maintaining the equipment also became much safer, and we’ve found that sodium hypochlorite is much more readily available. The transfer required a capital investment of about $7 million and has increased our operating costs by about $2 million dollars annually, but it was important for the safety of both our employees and the public that we serve. Now it is helping us avoid significant cost increases, as the industry is becoming more aware of the risks involved with gaseous chlorine. 

We also have a well-organized joint labor-management safety and health committee that meets monthly to look at potential areas for concern on safety issues. We also have a safety council, comprising department heads and their superiors, that meets at least quarterly to discuss safety concerns and ideas. The safety council assesses injuries and accidents that have taken place and looks at how we can continue moving our safety program forward. 

We also ensure that our safety training compliance remains at 95 percent or above on a regular basis. This means that every employee, supervisor, manager, and director is actively involved in making sure they and their staff members are properly trained. We perform job safety analyses to confirm that resources are available for staff to perform their jobs in a safe manner. 

EMWD also has a significant contractor safety program. EMWD’s inspection team members are all trained to a high level not just on how to inspect project sites, the materials being used, and the methods, but also in the area of safety. They are empowered to work with contractors to provide assistance if needed and to recognize excellence on the job site. 

Another program EMWD instituted is Safety Best Practices, which promotes a new safety practice every month. One example is what we call the Circle of Safety program. It requires employees to place a cone behind their vehicles and walk around their vehicles to inspect them before they move the vehicle again. This proactive use of a leading business practice significantly reduced the number of accidents involving moving vehicles. 

We also use a proactive approach in all the areas in which we work. For example, when we design new facilities, we do a preuse safety analysis before building begins. We review any safety deficiencies that those types of facilities have had in the past so we can improve them. We ensure not only that the new facilities will be constructed according to good practices, but also that the end users of those buildings— wastewater treatment plant or water distribution operators, for instance—will be safe on the job. 

Municipal Water Leader: In what ways has technological change changed the safety risks that EMWD employees deal with? 

Doug Hefley: There are areas of technology that can lead to increased risk and to decreased risk. We use technology to enable employees’ participation in EMWD’s prevention program. For example, our program involves reporting near-miss incidents or unsafe conditions and making safety suggestions. All that can be submitted online by employees through a transparent process where possible issues are first received and evaluated by the safety and risk management division and then evaluated by the district’s safety committee. Reports of unsafe conditions and near-miss incidents are assigned to the appropriate department head for resolution. The technology allows us to ensure that we’re not just receiving these concerns but that we are correcting them within 30 days. It allows employees who submit items to see the status of their reports. It also gives us the ability, if we were to have an unsafe condition reported at one facility, to communicate this information to the rest of our facilities so it is corrected throughout the organization. 

We also recently acquired software that will help EMWD to perform equipment-specific lockout block out procedures. This is a process in which each individual piece of EMWD equipment is identified, and then the risks and hazards associated with it are outlined in a step-by-step process. This program allows EMWD to standardize the approach that we’re using to identify hazards and create proper preventative measures. It will ultimately result in a document that is used at all EMWD facilities, so employees will be able to walk into any facility and find a standardized document for effectively shutting down or starting up the equipment stored there. EMWD has more than 15,000 pieces of equipment that will go through this process. 

Municipal Water Leader: What kinds of safety training does EMWD provide to its employees? 

Doug Hefley: EMWD has a customized safety training program. Instead of assigning generic trainings to all employees, we look at the duties required for each position and the risks and safety conditions involved with those positions and assign training based on that. Our areas of safety training include heat illness (our part of Riverside County often experiences temperatures above 100 degrees during the summer), lockout block out, confined space entry, construction activities, construction sites, general electrical safety, and NFPA 70E high-voltage training. 

Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future when it comes to safety and risk management at EMWD? 

Paul Jones: It’s paramount that EMWD continually improve its programs and embrace new technologies, safety measures, and methods. We want to be innovative in our approach to injury and illness prevention and to continue leading the industry in this area. We also want to be responsive to emerging safety and risk topics. For example, we have invested in understanding cybersecurity implications to employee and public safety and developing risk mitigation. EMWD’s commitment to innovation and continuous improvement sustains a sense of enthusiasm for our safety culture that lasts from when an employee walks in the door until they retire and leave. 

Doug Hefley: We have many employees who come up with great ideas for improvements, and it’s important to EMWD that they are recognized for safety excellence within the organization. We’ve done a good job finding significant ways to celebrate them, but in keeping with EMWD’s culture, we want to continuously improve in that area. 

Paul Jones is the general manager of Eastern Municipal Water District. Doug Hefley is EMWD’s director of safety and risk management. For more about EMWD and to contact Mr. Jones and Mr. Hefley, visit emwd.org.