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Human Performance Tools: Important or Critical?

The critical steps of a work task are just that – critical. They are distinct from important steps and can cause immediate injury if not properly executed. If you research the definition of a critical step in relation to human performance, you will find that it is a human action that will trigger immediate, irreversible, and intolerable harm to a person or asset if that action or a preceding action is improperly performed. In other words, it’s basically the point of no return once the action is performed. On the other hand, many actions that you may need to take leading up to a critical step are important and should be recognized as such. Some examples of important steps include preparing for a task, verifying proper equipment to be worked on and selecting materials.

The use of human performance tools can be quite effective in helping workers to properly execute both critical and important work tasks. These types of tools significantly reduce the chances of an incident or injury taking place during a work activity, and can take you to a new level of working safely that begins with situational awareness, which is the accuracy of a person’s current knowledge and understanding of working conditions compared to actual conditions at a given time. Knowing for sure what is going on and being aware of what others are supposed to be doing help lead to greater safety and improved decision-making. Knowing what to do in certain situations can be the difference between an incident that just occurred and one that never happened. Whenever you or anyone you’re working with becomes unsure, they have lost situational awareness.

Self-Checks and Peer Checks
One valuable, popular human performance tool is the self-check/peer check, which is designed to increase a person’s chances for error-free performance at critical steps. A self-check is performed before a specific act is executed. The doer pauses to focus his or her attention and reflect on the intended action, the components of the action and the expected outcome. The purpose of a peer check is to have a knowledgeable second person assess the action the doer is about to execute. This person will review the planned course of action and point out any hazards the doer may not have noticed. The peer will also help to ensure that the action takes place according to plan. While a self-check is acceptable on its own if a peer is not available, a combination of a self-check and a peer check is always preferred since the peer check portion of the technique takes advantage of a fresh set of eyes and an objective viewpoint.

Another human performance tool that can be applied to mitigate risk when you are engaging in a critical or an important work task is the stop-timeout. This term may sound self-explanatory; however, when utilizing it as a human performance tool, it is more extensive than just stopping. It allows you to take the necessary time to find the answers to your questions and to avoid making assumptions. To effectively take a stop-timeout, one must understand exactly what it means to take a timeout before proceeding with a task. When conditions change or you’re uncertain, this is a great time to stop. Stopping will give workers the opportunity to gain more information about the situation from other well-informed individuals before proceeding, which in turn will help to bring everyone back to the same level of awareness. Assemble the work team to discuss the reasons for taking the stop-timeout. Contact the supervisor or another experienced person who understands the task. After questions are answered and before restarting work, a self-check/peer check should be completed. The tailboard should also include discussion about any changes that may occur as a result of the stop-timeout.

Implementation of the Concepts
There are at least two examples in 29 CFR 1910.269 where OSHA provides utility workers with opportunities to effectively implement these concepts.

The first example is the mandatory job briefing. During the briefing, the crew leader or crew members can pre-identify points in the job when a self-check, peer check or stop-timeout should be inserted into the process. These checks could be for any task the crew deems critical to a successful outcome, such as phase checking, operating a switch, a test for no voltage or even something as simple as ensuring that a fall protection lanyard is properly attached to an anchor point.

The other example is OSHA’s two-man rule. OSHA requires a second person for a number of reasons including first aid/CPR and pole-top rescue. In the context of this discussion, a second qualified worker should be used for peer checks and to call for a stop-timeout if the other worker unknowingly gets into an at-risk situation.

When you reach into your toolbox to retrieve the right tools to safely complete your tasks, are you including human performance tools? If so, are you aware of the situation and do you know which tool or tools to apply? Your awareness and knowledge are not only important – they’re critical.

About the Author: Richard J. Horan Jr., CSP, CUSP, is a senior safety and health specialist for Allentown, Pa.-based PPL Electric Utilities. He has 37 years of experience, including work as a frontline mechanic and senior safety professional providing risk solutions. Horan is president of the Philadelphia Chapter of ASSE and a member of AIHA. He holds a master’s degree in safety sciences from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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