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Reject Risk Acceptance

The coronavirus pandemic is running wild, the economy is barely running at all, and I am running out of patience. I often hear people talk about the new normal, but personally, I am ready for the old normal: dinners out with friends, the Clemson Tigers on the football field and traveling with my son’s hockey team. All of this stuff runs through my head every day, and in some form or another, it’s likely running through your head, too. And if we are spending our time and energy thinking and worrying about everything that’s going on right now, do you know what we aren’t focusing on the way we should?

Our safety at work.

I have long said that complacency, also referred to as risk acceptance, is the biggest threat we face in life. It is the act of identifying a risk and then choosing not to take any action to eliminate or mitigate that risk. How many times has that gone poorly and caught us off guard? Perhaps there was a flash in a meter can, a broken water line at the end of an auger or a co-worker partially buried in a trench. Those things that went wrong did so because we accepted the risk that they could go wrong. We decided to leave the service hot in the meter can to fix the broken jaw and went phase to ground. We decided to use the auger even though we were a little too close to the blue marking paint on the ground. We decided to jump in the hole to splice the cable. Why did we decide to do those things? Perhaps because we were fatigued, distracted, feeling pressed for time or because almost all of us have done them dozens, hundreds or possibly even thousands of times before. The phrase “We do it all the time” usually is uttered in the follow-up meetings to these types of events. It’s complacency, it’s risk acceptance, and it’s dangerous.

Not taking any action to eliminate or mitigate an identified risk is like crossing four lanes of traffic with your eyes closed and accepting that an accident is bound to happen. We would never do that. But we will identify a risk on the job and then get to work without taking all the necessary steps to mitigate it. There are risks involved in almost everything, from driving a vehicle while using your phone to transferring a three-phase pole at night to making up a new service, yet not all of us would make the effort to perform these tasks in the safest way possible. And that’s because we have become complacent.

So, what can we do about this serious problem? One of the greatest strategies is to be present in the moment. We often hear this in our personal lives (e.g., put the phone down and enjoy the sunset, the family time, the ocean, the mountains and so on). I tell my kids to be present in the moment on an almost daily basis. The great thing is, we can use this same idea in our working lives. Be present in the moment when you are preparing to begin a task. Push away all the thoughts we talked about at the beginning of this article, all those thoughts of what is happening tonight, tomorrow, this weekend. Be present as you think about the task, identify the risks, mitigate or eliminate them, and then begin the task. Failing to do this for yourself – and failing to help your co-workers do the same – is risk acceptance, and it means ultimately being responsible for the outcome. The chance of something bad happening might be one in 1 million, but eventually that one day arrives.

We should never accept any consequence that results in injury or worse for ourselves or our co-workers. Much of what we do in this field of work has hazards associated with it. The work becomes dangerous when we fail to use our skills and training. Each of us needs to do our best every day to be present in the moment, stay focused and reject complacency in favor of safety.

Jeffrey Sullivan is a senior engineering technologist at Duke Energy in Largo, Florida. He spent 13 years as a lineman in New Hampshire and Florida before pivoting to his current role. In addition to overseeing the engineering and design group in Largo, Sullivan is active in various committees and process improvement projects at Duke Energy.

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Jeffrey Sullivan

About the Author: Jeffrey Sullivan is the director of safety and training for Homosassa, Florida-based F&H Contractors. He has been working in the electrical utility industry since 2001, first for two large utilities prior to transitioning to his current role. Sullivan has experience in overhead and underground line construction and maintenance as a journeyman lineman and foreman, and more recently with utility engineering and design management.