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Are You Your Brother’s Keeper?

“I’m a big boy and I can take care of myself.” How many times have you heard this comment when observing and attempting to challenge risky behavior? Why do we hesitate to question someone else’s actions? And why don’t we listen to co-workers’ concerns? First, I believe we don’t want to deal with the confrontation, and second, we either don’t consider the consequences or we don’t believe the consequences will occur. Why else would we allow a crew member’s unsafe actions to continue?

Accountability is not a popular concept in the field. In the field, the final decision about procedure and the safety plan lies with the lead person, but every crew member has a responsibility for safety on the job. Just as each member of the crew has a responsibility to participate in developing the procedure and safety plan, each person has the individual responsibility to hold themselves accountable and follow that plan.

Three Critical Components
Accountability is one of three critical components that empower crew members to protect one another from poor decisions that lead to risky actions and, ultimately, accidents. The other two components are responsibility and authority. Together, the three components create an essential balance that prevents unsafe acts and promotes a safe work environment.

The balance is achieved when a team has a clear understanding of its responsibilities, has the authority necessary to fulfill those responsibilities and takes accountability for the consequences of their outcomes. The responsibilities should not be a secret. They are written in OSHA laws, the National Electrical Safety Code and each company’s safety manual. The consequences for not following these rules need to be clearly stated and enforced by leadership. While the lead lineworker on the crew has the authority to guide the crew’s actions, everyone on the crew has to have the authority to question what’s happening and stop other crew members from conducting unsafe work practices. If this culture is created, accountability among the crew members will blossom and flourish.

Now, this may sound easy, but the personalities of the crew members can make this culture difficult to develop. How does the young lineworker question the seasoned lineworker’s actions without being criticized for being wet behind the ears and told to keep his comments to himself? This is exactly the type of interaction occurring on the job that stops accountability in its tracks. An attitude of caring for one another has to be cultivated. The young lineworker has to respect the seasoned lineworker and be willing to learn from him or her, while the seasoned lineworker has to be willing to be challenged by and learn from the young lineworker.

I have gotten to know hundreds of lineworkers in my career and have yet to meet one who is perfect. Some believe they are very close, but they all make mistakes. A word of caution from one to the other may save them from serious injury or death. However, this truth is often overpowered by pride.

The Superman Philosophy
We know the consequences of making mistakes while working with energized lines and equipment, but we never believe it will happen to us. I call this the Superman philosophy. It takes a great amount of confidence in your abilities to be a lineworker; however, that same confidence that enables you to excel can also cause you to believe you can’t be hurt. Bad things will always happen to the other guy. When you listen to accident reports in safety meetings, you never believe it can happen to you.

For those of you who have been involved in serious accidents or suffered the loss of a co-worker, you know the consequences all too well. The nagging regrets of what you could have done to prevent the accident stay with you for a long time. In recent training sessions I have asked why we become motivated to work more safely when we hear about and review accidents. During those training sessions, statistics were reviewed that show that if you are emotionally close to the person who was injured, the severity of the injuries actually leads to a higher degree of motivation. In fact, people are much more motivated to work more safely or to challenge co-workers to work more safely following an accident. While this is a good thing, it is nonetheless reactive decision-making rather than proactive decision-making. Instead of reacting, we must respect the potential consequences of our actions and be motivated to prevent an accident from occurring.

Lineworkers must be committed to using proper work practices and appropriate PPE each and every day. They must also be their brother’s or sister’s keeper and make sure everyone goes home safely each day after building, maintaining and repairing the world’s electric systems.

About the Author: Steve Hedden, CUSP, is a consultant for Safely Home Utility Training Services. He has more than 30 years of experience in the electric utility industry, including nearly 15 years with Commonwealth Edison in the Chicago metropolitan area and 18+ years working for Wisconsin public power utilities. Hedden also currently acts as job training and safety instructor for Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin.

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