Battling Invisible Distractions

Over the years, the utility industry has spent countless hours and dollars on worker safety efforts. By now, I think just about everyone reading this Tailgate Topic has attended a safety seminar or meeting where a new concept was explained, a new acronym was released or a new form was rolled out. Personally, my bowl is full of alphabet soup and my file cabinet is full of documents with untold revisions. But what have these concepts, acronyms and forms really done for us?

Yes, we have fewer accidents today than we did in the early days of line work. There have been major advancements in industry tools, practices and equipment. Why is it, then, that many root cause analysis reports still include phrases like “the employee didn’t notice …” or “hazard not identified prior to task” or “the crew was distracted by …”? While none of these are good reasons for an incident to occur, I will agree that sometimes things can happen that are out of our control. It’s also true that the human brain is lazy – it doesn’t want to expend more energy than it must and will sometimes drift when a worker is performing a routine task that they’ve done hundreds of times before. So, the question now is, how can we eliminate distractions on the job?

First, we may need to change what comes to mind when we hear the word “distraction.” It prompts many people to think of, for example, a driver using a cellphone behind the wheel or a ground helper scrolling social media while his partner is working in the air. These are both things that have occurred on job sites, but I classify them as tangible distractions. A tangible distraction is instantly correctable with a coaching moment.

However, tangible distractions are not the only type of distraction. There is another kind – the invisible distraction – that is not discussed often enough in my opinion. Invisible distractions are present on the job site as soon as we get out of the truck and in the car as soon as we turn on the ignition.

What are some examples of invisible distractions? They are the thoughts about your finances, your in-laws coming to visit, your weekend golf game or your kid’s report card. Even just now while writing this article, I had my weekend plans jump to the front of my conscious brain. This naturally happens to everyone, but when it happens at the wrong time, it can be hazardous and affect our safety.

Resetting the Mind
We need to figure out ways to counteract invisible distractions, so this is where I turn to the world of sports. Kris Goodman, a certified mental performance consultant for a professional baseball team, offers one strategy: resetting the mind. It’s the practice of actively, consciously clearing your head after you have completed one activity and are about to move to the next, so that you are at your best at the start of that next activity. Think of a baseball pitcher who just gave up a homerun or a hockey goalie who just gave up a goal. Those occurrences need to be forgotten – immediately – so that the next pitch, the next puck, is the only thing in focus.

So, how do we apply this in the utility industry? It’s simple. Every job is a new experience. When we pull the airbrake on the truck and get out at the job site, we need to perform our hazard analysis, but we also need to reset (clear) our minds. If you are thinking about the weekend while walking to the pole, you need to reset. If you are thinking about a phone call with your spouse while you are watching your partner transfer wire, you need to reset.

Each location, job and task is independent from one another in the eyes of safety, and each step must be approached as a singular entity. Safely executing steps one through nine on a 10-step job does not mean step 10 will go smoothly. That’s why we must reset our minds prior to each step of any and every task. It’s also a good idea to have the crew foreman or another leader remind workers to stop and reset before each critical task.

As our industry continues to evolve, it is up to us to find new ways to work safely. This means putting more thought and effort into the human performance aspect of safety. More paperwork and work methods are meaningless if there is a mental safety hazard that is unidentified or under-identified. We must activate the conscious mind on every job, remove all indivisible distractions and make sure safety is the number one thing we’re focused on.

About the Author: Jeffrey Sullivan works as a senior engineering technologist for Duke Energy in Largo, Florida. He has been employed in the electric utility industry for 20 years at various companies.

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