Creating Good Safety Habits

A journeyman lineman is aloft in his bucket, helping a co-worker install a new transformer on a utility pole. For a second, his mind wanders to the argument he had last night with his wife. Then, suddenly, he hears his co-worker asking for help repositioning the transformer, which is now suspended in the air, attached to the boom winch line of the line truck. In response, the journeyman lineman overreacts and operates his bucket controls too quickly, hitting and lifting the bottom of the transformer. The sling loosens and comes off the lifting eyes, causing the transformer to drop to the ground. In a fraction of a second, oil spills all over the sidewalk and the street. Even the groundman standing nearby is splashed. What a mess, not to mention an environmental disaster.

And all it took was a second of daydreaming.

The journeyman lineman in this story lost focus when his mind wandered. And while this is a fictitious account of a supposed incident, it could easily happen to you for myriad reasons, including complacency and simply being human.

Because each of us is human – with a brain that, by design, often wanders throughout each day – certain good safety habits must be created and sustained by everyone on our crews. Science tells us that the more we practice a certain behavior, the more likely we are to still engage in that behavior even when we’re not fully paying attention.

So, what do good, safe habits practiced by lineworkers and other crew members look like? They include:

  • Holding a job briefing before the start of work, after extended breaks and anytime something changes at the work site.
  • Obeying all traffic rules, including wearing seat belts, maintaining posted speed limits and avoiding use of hand-held cellphones.
  • Performing a 360-degree truck safety check before leaving the yard and before moving a truck at a job site.
  • Inspecting all tools and equipment for damage before use. Anything that is found to be damaged must be removed from service and tagged accordingly.
  • Inspecting, testing and donning all required personal protective equipment.
  • Implementing proper work site setup, including deployment of qualified flaggers as needed to control traffic around the site.
  • Taking the appropriate precautions to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19 and other communicable diseases.

Forming Safe Habits

Of course, telling people that they need to learn and practice good safety habits is the easy part. The more difficult part is actually forming those habits. So, what can you do to tackle this obstacle? Here are two strategies to consider.

  1. Practice a task until you can’t get it wrong. You know exactly what it’s like to operate on autopilot. For example, maybe you drove home from work yesterday but didn’t remember anything about the drive until you pulled onto your street. Sound familiar? Once an action or task becomes a habit, our brains don’t require the same amount of energy to complete it – we will simply perform the action or task without needing to think much about it. So, work on your own and with your crew members to ensure repetitive job tasks are done the safe, correct way every time. Habits will be formed, and workers will be less likely to make errors even if autopilot is on.
  2. Stop before critical steps to re-engage your brain. There are certain critical actions that utility workers must engage in to complete their tasks. Once they’re complete, some of those actions can’t be undone. So, these types of actions should be identified prior to the start of work, and the employee or employees responsible should stop before performing them. After stopping, the employee should take a minute to clear their head, look around, assure their full attention is on the task, ask any questions they may have and develop a new plan if necessary. Then they can proceed to complete the task.

About the Author: Luis Ortega, CUSP Emeritus, previously worked for Northline Utilities LLC as a safety specialist. Prior to assuming his last role, he retired from Consolidated Edison Co. of New York after a 30-year career. Ortega currently provides technical assistance to attorneys involved in electrical construction litigation cases. He holds a technical certificate from Power Technologies Inc. and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from The City College of New York. Reach him at ortegal1957@gmail.com.

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