By Andrew Tellijohn
The small city of Ellsworth, located in Southwest Minnesota just north of the Iowa border, doesn’t have the resources for a lot of employee training. Yet City Clerk Dawn Huisman and her colleagues have learned a lot about safety in recent months.
They’ve learned about the different types of fire extinguishers on the market and how to operate them safely. They’ve learned about looking for signs of frostbite while shoveling snow or being outside for long periods of time in freezing temperatures. And they’ve learned how to properly place reflective triangles for safety during an equipment breakdown or roadway emergency.
Ellsworth (population 497) is part of the Southwest Regional Safety Group (RSG), one of 33 such groups across the state where small cities band together to more efficiently and frequently provide safety training for employees.
The RSG program was created by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) in partnership with the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association (MMUA).
LMCIT member cities can connect with other member cities in their area to form an RSG. They are required to jointly hold a minimum of six safety committee meetings per year, led by an MMUA regional safety coordinator.
LMCIT covers more than half the cost of the training events and gives the group several choices, allowing them to tailor each training to cover the topics they want or need.
Huisman’s group, which formed in 2009, consists of eight cities: Ellsworth, Fulda, Heron Lake, Jasper, Round Lake, Rushmore, Slayton, and Wilmont. The cities take turns hosting training events. And the host city gets an extra bonus: one-on-one training with the MMUA-provided leader. Huisman says Ellsworth is looking forward to hosting an upcoming training on avoiding slips, trips, and falls.
“If you can come out of that safety meeting with one great tip — usually it’s several — it’s very helpful,” Huisman says. “It’s affordable. It’s worth your time driving over.”
Makes required training fun
Tailored training options are a significant benefit, as are opportunities to meet city officials in neighboring communities who have similar challenges, says Dan Evans, city clerk of Cleveland (population 747). Representatives from his city — along with counterparts in Waterville, Elysian, and Morristown — formed the Le Sueur/Rice RSG in 2011.
They meet monthly, finding it a useful and fun way to fulfill training required by the state and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — training that otherwise might not be possible due to a lack of resources.
“We needed to have the training,” Evans says. “It was mandated by OSHA to do this, and we’re too small potatoes to try to do any of this ourselves. So, we had to have a consortium of other entities involved to be able to do it.”
Evans says the training sessions are very practical and helpful. He recently attended a session on properly filling out workers’ compensation logs where all the reps had a useful conversation about challenges they’ve experienced and how they handled them.
He doesn’t attend all the training sessions. Often, it’s public works representatives or other city employees who go, but he does appreciate the hands-on nature of the trainings. For the fire extinguisher training, for example, all the cities bring their own equipment, then the leader starts a small oil and rag fire, so each member gets a chance to experience putting one out.
It’s a lot more interesting and educational being able to experience those things than watching videos on YouTube, Evans says.
“I think there’s a lot of benefit to that in terms of making it memorable,” he adds. “We enjoy it. There is a lot of good content.”
Value added training
As valuable as the group training session is, the one-on-one training the host city gets is equally important. This “value added time,” as they call it, is provided by the leader, which is supplied by MMUA.
The last time the City of Ellsworth hosted, Huisman says the group leader went to the wastewater treatment plant, a fire department shed, a public works shop, and other city facilities, and then shared observations. Through that meeting, the city learned it needed to secure propane tanks standing against a wall in one building, secure commercial shelving to a wall in its old City Hall building, and fix a few other small things.
“He made a list for us,” she says. “That to me was very significant.”
It’s great to get a heads-up on potential red flags during a mock OSHA inspection before dealing with the real thing, Huisman and Evans agree.
“It’s a nice feature,” Evans says. “They come and visit our facilities and anything that catches their eyes is going to catch OSHA’s eyes, as well, so we can get that taken care of right away.”
Good leadership helps
RSG participants mentioned the importance of a good facilitator. MMUA Program Leader Michael Sewell says he still occasionally gets stumped by some of the questions city officials come up with during those one-on-one meetings or in group sessions, but he enjoys the challenge and always comes back quickly with an answer.
Sewell works with about 15 RSGs in Southern Minnesota. He knows the communities and tailors the content to their needs. Following the pandemic lockdown, Sewell says he relishes meeting in person, rather than virtually, to give cities what they need.
“They’re getting information and knowledge they otherwise probably wouldn’t be getting,” he says, adding that the RSGs allow him to meet reps from as many as 20 communities — up to 80 individual employees — in a week, accomplishing what would otherwise take him a month or more.
“That gives me a lot of personal time with these individuals,” Sewell says. “Socially, it’s very beneficial. Then, besides that, you get the feel-good moments when someone comes back and says, ‘I remembered in our training when we talked about this, and it prevented something from happening.’”
Sewell says some people start with a negative impression of OSHA. He reminds them that health and safety rules are in place because some previous misstep caused an injury. The goal isn’t to get someone in trouble, but rather to promote safety.
“The employee safety aspect — getting people to go home with all their fingers and toes, giving people the best chance essentially to go home in the same condition as when they went to work that day — that’s what gets me coming into work every morning,” Sewell says.
Learning from each other
Sewell also thinks it’s valuable for city leaders to “get out of their silos” and come together with people in nearby cities, where the challenges are likely to be similar.
“They get to rely on neighboring communities. It helps them forge relationships with people who have similar job descriptions,” Sewell says. “Eight miles away there’s another city. It’s not exactly the same, but they have similar experiences.”
That was the idea when LMCIT created the RSG program. The needs of a small city in Northeastern Minnesota likely differ from those in the Southwestern corner of the state, so each group chooses its own safety training subjects from a bevy of options based on topics that fit their interests and needs. To qualify, cities must have fewer than 50 full-time employees and have LMCIT’s workers’ compensation coverage.
“Creating and maintaining policies, coordinating required training, and constantly working to monitor and improve your city’s safety record is no small task,” says Kristen LeRoy, LMCIT program manager. “The program makes it easy to participate in a safety committee that complies with the state and federal OSHA and meets city’s needs.”
Garnette Hanson, city clerk of Karlstad (population 710), helped form the Northwest RSG in 2020. It’s gotten off to a bit of a rocky start due to COVID-19 restrictions, but she has learned a lot from sessions on safety in the workplace and dealing with heat disorders, which was particularly helpful during this year’s summer heatwave. Hanson is anticipating that a similar session on cold weather situations will be useful, given the winter temperatures in Northern Minnesota.
“Some of the laws that we have … ignorance is not an excuse,” she says. “You either have to know it or you are going to get in trouble for not knowing it. This has really opened our eyes. It’s well worth the money.”
She also appreciates the one-on-one session with the RSG coordinator when Karlstad hosts, because the leader always brings up a few safety issues that city staff had not previously considered.
Ellsworth’s Huisman agrees that the benefits of participation in the RSG program should be more widely explored. “More communities should look into doing this,” she says. “The networking [and training are] awesome.”
Learn more about Regional Safety Groups at www.lmc.org/rsg.
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer.