Increasing Worker Confidence and Competence
When allowed to be immersed in their desired craft, our workers become proficient, experienced and competent. Adept lineworkers, for example, will interact with thousands of poles and pieces of hardware in their careers. They have a deep understanding of strain, depth, condition and loading after only moments of viewing a pole they are about to work on.
But does the industry recognize and treat our workers like they are the experts? This article is not meant to tell you what you should do, but I am going to provide information for you to discuss, interpret and decide how to implement. If the words in this article cause you to pause, reflect and then act on a potential change in strategy, I am interested in hearing what you learn from your experience. You may agree or disagree with what I write about in these pages, but the most important reaction is to question the material and engage in discussions about it.
Earning a Ph.D. in Line Work
On average, it takes about 8.5 years to earn a Ph.D. in the U.S. With that amount of learning and experience, a level of mastery of the subject matter is achieved. Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell has stated that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve a mastery level in anything. Neuroscience has proven that mastery actually changes the structure and chemical composition of the brain to allow for faster decision-making with less cognitive load and more subconscious processing.
Considering the time element to change the structure of our brains, I submit that any worker who is a continuous learner, and who has more than 10,000 hours in their trade, has unofficially earned a Ph.D. in what they do. Again, though, this only applies if you are continuing to learn, always.
How can we test that theory? How do you know if your brain has changed over time? If anyone reading this has opened a print drafted by someone with a master’s degree in design engineering, there is a phrase often heard almost immediately upon viewing the print: Why are we doing it this way?
This question occurs because upon seeing the print, there seems to be a better, more efficient design in the crew leader’s mind. While the crew leader looking at the print may not be privy to the property issues, available materials or other aspects of design because the first time they see the print is when the job is released, the designer, with their degree in design engineering, does not have a Ph.D. in doing the crew’s work. When mastery of anything is achieved, we subconsciously “see” things others don’t. An emergency room doctor profiles people unconsciously while having dinner in a restaurant. He may, for example, point out someone to his wife who looks like they are in liver failure. Obviously, the doctor is not at the restaurant to profile patrons for illnesses. It happens subconsciously until a connection is made and delivered to his consciousness. It’s the same for a lineman who goes on vacation and notices a blown fuse on a pole he is passing. Once a level of mastery is reached, the lineman subconsciously patrols lines wherever he goes.
Daniel Coyle, author of “The Talent Code,” has stated that talent “is grown, not learned.” Essentially, talent is myelin, which is the insulation that thickens on the nerve fibers that we use repeatedly. In acting as insulation, myelin allows for a faster electrical signal to be sent to the much-used nerve fiber group, resulting in faster discernment with less effort.
Some Common Conversations
Imagine a workforce of skilled, competent employees, all at different stages of their career. Some are new apprentices while others are somewhere between new and having a lifetime of experience in the industry.
Do we treat our workers like they have the answers and know their work? Sometimes. Having been a lineman, I can tell you that other times, I have been expected to get the work done regardless of my experience. The following conversations I have had may sound similar to those you have had:
Me: I need an extra man to run in that three-phase underground today. An apprentice will work.
Me: Because I need one person to watch the reel, one to put the wire in the ditch and one to drive.
Boss: Can you do it without the apprentice?
Me: This No. 6 copper primary is in really rough shape. I could use an outage for this in case it falls down.
Boss: Can’t get an outage, figure it out.
Me: Looking at this print, if we converted the six sections of three-phase before the riser pole, we wouldn’t have to put a ratio bank and the three-phase riser on the same pole.
Boss: Just build it the way it’s designed.
Me: I don’t think we can build this design; we are short on materials.
Boss: Failure is not an option. We have to complete this project.
The industry continues to pressure employees to get the work done. Skilled workers are consistently questioned and denied their requests or asked to explain the obvious. Imagine if you did that to your young children. How would that affect their confidence? If we consistently deny that our workers have knowledge and experience, a condition called “learned helplessness” begins to occur. We learn that no matter what we say or ask, we can’t change things, so we give up and just get the work done. Then, when an incident occurs, sometimes you will hear, “What were you thinking?” Treating skilled workers like they know less than they do creates problems with crew dynamics. It also becomes more difficult for crew members to speak up. And why speak up if nobody is listening?
I bring this to your attention as an observation. But let’s also consider this question: What effect does learned helplessness have on our ability to mitigate risk?
Listening for Red Flags
“I think,” “should be OK,” “probably” and “might be fine” all mean that we don’t know. If you say or hear these words, stop and take a moment to evaluate the situation.
Because of our workers’ competence levels, ideas are constantly surfacing and being considered. When we doubt ourselves or our ability to act on ideas, we begin to accept the status quo. But the reality is that we as a species have survived 75,000 years with about the same brain we currently possess. We can determine from this that our species has enough abilities to have avoided extinction thus far. Our workers know more than we give them credit for, but almost none of them realize that they have a Ph.D. level of expertise.
When we realize we know more, we also realize that we already have answers to some of the questions we ask ourselves during the course of our work. For instance, before a lineman climbs a wood pole that’s in rough shape, he assesses it. If it looks questionable, he then does a sound test, hitting the pole with a 2-pound hammer. If it sounds OK, he then digs 12 inches under the ground to drive a screwdriver into the pole. The reality is that this test is subjective, and the only reason the pole is being sound-tested is because the lineman has already determined the pole is in poor condition. He’s used his experience to evaluate and judge the pole. So, perhaps the best decision is to tie three ropes to the pole on the way up so that the lineman fails safely if the pole has a structural failure.
And that’s the whole safety strategy – to listen for red flags, both in conversations with others and with ourselves, consider them and then act on them. Here are some other examples:
Q: Do you think I need more rubber hose?
A: Yes, because you wouldn’t have asked otherwise.
Q: Do you think that wire will hold? The splice felt funny when I put in the wire.
A: No, you have doubt or you wouldn’t have asked the question.
Q: Do you think the pole hole is deep enough?
A: No, it must be marginal or else you wouldn’t have asked.
Q: The tangent pole is going up 8 feet. Do you think the tie wire on the next corner pole will hold?
A: No, I don’t think so – because you asked. Set up and secure that corner pole.
When we respect ourselves for what we know – and when others respect us for what we know – we begin to realize that the reason a thought or idea appeared in our consciousness is because something put it there. Some connection was made behind the veil of our consciousness, and without invitation, the thought then arrived in our consciousness. If there is a consequence tied to that thought, deploy this as a simple strategy: Wait 10 seconds and consider the consequence of doing nothing. Since we consciously process 40 to 50 bits of information per second, that’s roughly 500 more bits of information in those 10 seconds.
Increasing Workforce Competence
Our industry has a lot of work coming down the pike. We are destined to have more workers with less cumulative experience. In my opinion, the industry has unwittingly eroded the confidence of our workforce, first by not acknowledging their level of expertise and second by continuing to try to find system fixes where – again, in my opinion – greater competency is needed. For example, if someone cuts their hand, we put everyone in cut-resistant gloves. If someone slips, we require everyone to wear anti-slip footwear. If a worker cuts out while climbing a pole, everyone is mandated to use a pole-choke device. These are all good safety efforts, but none of them makes the worker more competent.
To increase competence in the workforce, we must determine how we can help our employees get better at their work. One important way is to consistently encourage workers to take the time they need to consider why certain thoughts occurred to them; that time spent may prevent an incident from occurring. Ten seconds is enough to change your mind, share your thoughts with your crewmates and potentially save a life.
Further, encourage your co-workers to act on their inconvenient thoughts that pop up in the middle of a critical move and make it safe for them to speak up. As humans, we are excellent at driving a bad plan all the way through to failure. Let’s learn to interrupt that plan if it’s needed and take a minute to change outcomes.
Everyone reading this article is aware of fatalities in the industry. Every single one of us has been involved in a near-miss and has been lucky. Let’s remove luck as a strategy to stay safe. It’s time to recognize just how talented and smart you are at your trade. Listen to yourself and each other, and speak up when there are potentially serious consequences to an action or a lack of action. Agree to fail safely so we can all go home healthy every day.
About the Author: Bill Martin, CUSP, NRP, RN, DIMM, currently works in safety and training for Northline Utilities LLC and Northeast Live Line. He has held previous roles as a lineman, line supervisor and safety director.