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Coaching the Crew Chief in Safety

Walk onto any job site and you will find that one person has been designated to be in charge. Although this person may have a different title from site to site – such as crew lead, foreman or crew chief – they are responsible for the work being done by the crew that day.

What do you think is the crew chief’s most important action in their role? In Minnesota, we are making an effort to send one clear message – that the crew chief’s most important job is to prevent injuries. It is not a new message, but it is critical that it has been clearly communicated to the crew chief at every worksite. And you can’t simply tell the chief that preventing injuries is their No. 1 priority – that person needs to be coached in safety. Just as in football, we don’t send the quarterback onto the field with their team if we have only shown them films and talked about how to play the game. In addition, the coach watches from the side of the field and guides the quarterback as to what skills they must use to do the job, to win the game. So, in this month’s Tailgate, let’s explore what it takes to coach a crew chief in safety.

An Overview
To begin, pair the crew chief with the designated coach; they should expect to spend a half-day together. The coach should be present at the start of the job, and their role is to observe the crew chief and interact with them as necessary, while staying conscious of whether or not the work at the site is being done safely.

If you are acting as the coach that day, use a checklist – which we’ll discuss in the next section – to identify if the crew chief is engaging in key safety actions. It also is important to clearly keep in mind what coaching is not in these circumstances.   

  • It is not a lesson in leadership, although many of the elements are comparable.
  • It is not telling the crew chief how to do the mechanics of the job; the focus is on safety.
  • It is not to have any retaliation associated with it. Any unsafe actions on the part of the crew chief should be corrected on the spot.
  • It is not a crew observation; the focus is working with the crew chief.
  • It is not to be done in front of the crew; all conversations are to be between coach and crew chief.
  • It does not include a full report to the line superintendent. The only report given to the superintendent is that the coaching occurred in the key areas.

Key Interaction Points
Four interaction points must occur during the safety coaching process.

Interaction Point 1: Conducting the Job Briefing
An effective job briefing is the cornerstone of safe work. When the coaching process is used, the coach is present during the job briefing and able to observe the crew’s dialogue and body language. Then, using a checklist, the coach looks for the appropriate safety actions associated with the job briefing. For example, did the crew chief:

  • Ask the crew what they felt were the top three to five hazards today?
  • Clearly state to the crew to stop the job at any time they feel it is unsafe?
  • Review key safety rules prior to the job?

Interaction Point 2: Maintaining Safety Diligence During the Job
Once the job briefing is done, the coach now must observe the crew chief to see how they keep safety a key part of the job. Did the crew chief:

  • Acknowledge the safe work practices of the crew?
  • Observe people to ensure their fitness for duty?
  • Ask the crew if all equipment was working properly?

At some point during this time, the coach, without interrupting the job, should give the crew chief a pre-made card with some thought-provoking safety questions printed on it. Following are some example questions.  

  • After asking if there are any issues that could prevent the crew from keeping their minds on task, one of the crew members brings up an issue. Now what will you do?
  • A crew member just dropped a tool and it barely missed another crew member. What is your next action?
  • It looks like an OSHA inspector just showed up and is getting out of the car. What are your next actions?

Interaction Point 3: Discussing Safety at the End of the Job
As we talk about the work that just got done, we sometimes miss an opportunity to debrief on the safety of the job. During this interaction point, the coach should look for conversation between the crew chief and crew. Did the crew chief:

  • Ask if there was anything about the job that made the crew nervous?
  • Ask if the work met the crew’s standard of safety?
  • Thank the crew for the safe work done that day?

Interaction Point 4: Wrapping Up the Coaching Process
The final conversation between coach and crew chief wraps up the coaching process. Information from the completed checklist is shared and then given to the chief; the coach doesn’t keep a copy. The checklist is a learning tool for the crew chief to use tomorrow and beyond. It’s their playbook on winning the game.

And what’s the game? For crew chiefs to never forget that their most important job is to prevent injuries today so that everyone can go home. If you are a coach, you play a vital role in this game, too. So, get out of the office and onto the job site – you have a game to win!

About the Author: Lidia Dilley Jacobson is the director of safety and loss control for the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, which serves 50 rural electric cooperatives in Minnesota. She is an experienced safety professional with 32 years in the industries of explosives, nuclear and electricity, and her work has involved technical, compliance-based and managerial responsibilities. Jacobson’s last 12 years have been focused on the electrical industry.

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