For irrigation district managers, issues of workplace safety extend beyond the safe use of heavy equipment and herbicide applications. They also have to account for the safety of employees. Philip Ball has spent much of his career creating a safe environment for others. After spending years as a police officer in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Georgia, he created the Situational Awareness Institute (SAI), which provides security and training to police departments and the private sector. Through SAI, Mr. Ball provides instruction in active-shooter response and survival, crisis intervention, and defensive tactics. Mr. Ball also provides workplace safety evaluations. He is a certified firearms instructor in Florida and Georgia and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Irrigation Leader’s senior writer, John Crotty, spoke with Mr. Ball about workplace safety at irrigation districts, the connection between effective hiring practices and a safe work environment, and fostering a positive working culture.
Philip Ball: Employers need to screen individuals before they are hired and given access to anything. It is a kind of quarantine. We do not want to introduce a contaminant into the environment.
John Crotty: How should the screening process be conducted, and what are some things a manager should look for?
Philip Ball: First, employers should run a criminal history to see whether prospective employees have any isolated incidents or a pathological behavior that could harm the company. I have found that a person’s current employer is not the most truthful person to speak with during a background investigation. If the person is a problem, the current employer may give them a glowing recommendation to get rid of them. Hiring managers must go at least three employers deep to get a thorough review and to speak to a former manager who will tell you the honest, unfiltered truth about the individual.
John Crotty: What should irrigation district managers keep in mind when hiring for certain positions?
Philip Ball: Someone who is going to be a ditch rider, for example, must be good at operating with autonomy and typically is not frail and can handle an adverse situation. I like to say that they have a commanding presence. What that means is when someone approaches them, they have a confidence level that demands respect, and in turn, they will respect you.
Predators will look for a frail person in a situation to exploit, which can become a problem. Having ditch riders that have a commanding presence can be a good preventive measure to ensure they do not fall victim to a predator.
John Crotty: What are some ways managers can foster the safety of their employees in the workplace?
Philip Ball: One of the best ways to foster safety, especially in the type of work environment many districts face, is through communication.
For example, I have found that a device called SoloProtect is inexpensive and helps maintain a constant line of communication in an array of situations. It looks like an IED tag, and it monitors employees at all times. The GPS can tell where employees are and, if they have fallen, can alert the call center to send dispatch. In the case of a threatening person, an employee can show the persontheir tag. While it may appear that the employee is only showing them a badge, the employee is actually pressing a button opening up a two-way call to headquarters. All sorts of groups in cities and rural areas are using it effectively. In my opinion, a device like this is the most cost effective, convenient, and unobtrusive.
Additionally, when employees have a basic understanding of self-defense, they will project confidence that repels attacks. Predators make their living off reading people and will sense that confidence. If they know someone is confident, they typically do not want to mess with them.
Employees can also be trained in preattack indicators, to notice nonverbal signs and be aware of the danger. The first step in avoiding a trap is to recognize it. People’s actions are truer than what they are saying.
John Crotty: Apart from having sufficient, easy communication devices and training, what other areas are critical to workplace safety?
Philip Ball: We now see that workplace violence is a greater threat than a school shooting. Knowing the indicators violent employees display before an attack is helpful. There are several instances I have responded to in which an employee was going through a rough patch in life. Most of the time, it is triggered by a departure of a significant other. The employee may try to self-medicate with alcohol or prescription medications or may overuse a stimulant, like caffeine. The employee no longer can cope with events that they normally would have coped with. They tend to overreact, violate company policies, avoid work, and display other behaviors of depression. If employers are watching for the signs, distressed employees will indicate that an attack is imminent.
John Crotty: In terms of the work environment itself, what things should a manager be thinking about to foster a safe workplace?
Philip Ball: Active shooters often prefer open areas with large groups of people who cannot defend themselves. One of the security risks I’ve seen lately is the open work environment. Some companies do not have different rooms or cubicles—it is just one large, undefined space.
I was just at an office in Atlanta, Georgia, with this exact setup. I walked into an area and could see 40 employees from where I was standing. For a shooter, it could be a prime target—a large group in an open area with few exits. Having individualized workspaces that can be secured when needed is important and can serve as a deterrent.
Additionally, employers need to be close to their employees. Not technologically connected, but close the old-fashioned way. When managers physically talk to employees, they can read nonverbal queues to know if someone is down. The end goal is for them to notice the cues, comfort them, and offer assistance. It can be the first step in avoiding a deadly situation.
Encouraging communication will allow others to detect potential violence. People will feel comfortable coming to their manager without being labeled a troublemaker. I would much rather see employees communicate too many false alarms than not enough and be left with casualties. In most active-shooter scenarios, there were warnings and indicators, but they went unreported.
John Crotty: If an irrigation district manager could do one thing today to improve safety, what would it be?
Phil Ball: The safest districts I have seen are the ones in which the manager considers the employees to be extended family. The manager has a personal concern with his or her employees’ well-being and works to establish a relationship with them.
Good leaders respect and care for the people they oversee. When the world of one employee is destabilized, the good leader knows it and can handle the situation. Good leaders make contact with their employees every week, if only for a few seconds to say hello. When treated this way, employees think of themselves as important. This simple action can be the best antidote to a negative situation. We need to get back to fostering a sense of community. It will help us all individually and will help businesses. What is done to one affects all.
I tell businesses everyday that hope is not a plan, and chaos is not a strategy. Irrigation districts and water agencies have to actively create a safer work environment.