Editor's Log: Tragedy Can Create Positive Change

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | April 2013, Vol. 68 No. 4

As an industry, we talk a lot these days about the importance and value of damage prevention. Safety is included in the conversation. Accidental deaths in the construction industry, particularly the underground segment, have fallen sharply over the past decade.

The significance of that accomplishment cannot be taken for granted. Few of us have witnessed the effects of sudden, unexpected death. Until that happens, it is difficult to truly perceive impacts.

That’s not the case for PG&E’s Nick Stavropoulos. Coming over from National Grid, Stavropoulos joined PG&E about one and ½ years ago as vice president of gas operations, responsible for the maintenance, construction and restoration of PG&E’s gas transmission and distribution systems.

PG&E has been a company struggling to recover from the turmoil of a 2010 disaster in California when the San Bruno pipeline explosion killed eight people and injured dozens of other, destroying 75 homes in the process.

In a presentation at the recent Pipeline Opportunities Conference in Houston, Stavropoulos told the audience that PG&E had “made it our mission to become the safest gas company in America.” Then he backed up that bold statement with some amazing statistics about accomplishments in safety-related areas over the past year.

But why is safety and damage prevention so important to him? Why would he want to move cross-country to a company reeling in a crisis mode? His pivotal reasoning was based on another terrible accident. Stavropoulos and his wife experienced a tragedy when their 26-year old daughter choked to death in their arms. As he tearfully related the event, he admitted that the incident caused his family to lose “a little bit of our faith.”

But an opportunity to restore that faith through action quickly emerged when PG&E came calling for a leader to reconfigure and refocus their massive gas operations – and to create a better, safer company. Convinced of PG&E’s sincerity and having a personal understanding of the pain of loss suffered by the families of the eight San Bruno victims, Stavropoulos embraced the opportunity.

He encouraged people to reflect upon “what you can do at your companies so that what happened at PG&E doesn’t happen again.”

Seeing death up-close and personal fundamentally changes people. Back in the early years of my career when I was a newspaper reporter and editor, I too witnessed death up close. I still vividly recall the incident that changed my careless habits forever.