With nearly three decades of experience in the safety profession, O’Brien Mills has served much of his tenure at Aldridge Electric Inc., Libertyville, Ill. Since joining Aldridge in 2001, Mills has been the driving force behind reducing the company’s total number of lost workdays, even as total hours worked increased by 33%. His role is vice president of safety, and in 2014 he instituted an incident- and injury-free workplace commitment, which has experienced measurable success.
How did you get into the safety field and what do you like best about it?
I started in the construction industry in 1989 as a field technician doing directional boring. That was my first introduction to what safety on a construction site could look like. As I grew with that company, I became responsible for the day-to-day field operations and had to learn to hold my crews accountable for their role in safety. It was then that I knew that safety’s job was one that would never be done—but something that had to keep growing and morphing as the industry advanced.
In 1997, I switched roles and became a regional safety and training coordinator. It was there that I worked in conjunction with regional management and the safety department to ensure safety compliance across the organization. I had started to hone in on what safety meant to me and had bigger ideas on how a safety culture should look and feel.
By the time I came to Aldridge in 2001, I stepped into the role of director of safety. Working at Aldridge has afforded me the opportunity to really dig into my passion for safety and move the needle toward a world-class safety program. I recently accepted the position of vice president of safety. This strategic role is crucial to the success of every project and shows the commitment Aldridge has to ensure everyone’s overall health and safety.
Have safety policies and procedures for line work changed over the years, and if so, how have they changed?
In the 90s, there were not a lot of standard operating procedures or OSHA-mandated rules. As the industry became more informed, so did the need to become safer. This has resulted in changes to various policies and procedures, requiring pivoting and due diligence to keep everyone safe.
In more recent years, I have had the honor of working with the OSHA Electrical Transmission and Distribution Safety Committee. This group of like-minded safety professionals shares best practices and works to define standards for a safer electrical transmission and distribution industry.
As the head of safety for lineworkers, what are the biggest challenges and how do you approach them?
Working with electricity is not for the faint of heart. This is dangerous work, and it is vital that lineworkers understand the dangers all around them. Safety starts with a worker’s mentality—change the way they view safety, and you will change the way they react.
We recently adopted the “Making Safe Decisions” model, which is a behavioral-based comprehensive health and safety program that highlights training, communication and awareness. This culture-changing approach is rooted in a system that helps workers identify vulnerabilities and teaches behavioral strategies for improving defenses.
Do you have any advice for professionals just getting into the safety field?
Never stop learning and growing. When we are best informed, we are best equipped and in a mindset that puts safety at the forefront.
Is there anything else you would like readers to consider?
If you see something [and] you are unsure if it is safe or not, never be afraid to say something. At Aldridge, all workers are empowered to pause and reset on the job site. That is, to take a time-out to make sure that the safest practices are being followed for any project. By empowering people to feel that they are part of the journey, they are more likely to be an ambassador and drive the organization forward on our journey to zero.
Currently employing 1,500 workers, Aldridge Electric celebrates 70 years in business in 2022. The company completed projects in the transportation, power, utility and industrial markets with a commitment to being incident- and injury-free.Header image by O’Brien Mills.