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Security in the Field: A Largely Unnoticed Need

It’s time for worker security to receive the same attention as worker safety.

Society today is no longer predisposed to viewing utility employees in a friendly manner, and aggression toward them is growing. For some time, the steady rise in aggression toward utility workers has flown under the radar. Whether employee or contractor, job site violence is a real threat. Of the multitude of issues fueling this aggression, one of the most significant is shifting public opinions of utilities themselves. For a growing segment of the population, public utilities are nuisances to be confronted, not benefactors providing a service. And this dissatisfaction and loathing for the utility are commonly expressed through violence aimed at field employees. However, employee security doesn’t receive the same attention as worker safety. This lack of attention is something that we need to rectify.

One of the reasons for this inattention is a fundamental lack of understanding. Quite frankly, the concepts of worker security aren’t as easy to understand as safety concepts. For example, it’s easy to recognize the cause-and-effect relationships between safety, equipment maintenance and worker injury. But the correlations between security, training and violence aren’t as apparent – yet they’re just as real.

Safety vs. Security
To understand the concepts of worker security, you need to know the differences between safety and security. But that’s easier said than done. People often use the words interchangeably, but their definitions are different. In their simplest forms, safety is protection from hazards, whereas security is protection from threats. Hazards tend to be dangers of circumstance, while threats are products of intent.

In my training sessions, I often describe the differences like this:

  • Safety protects us from ourselves. Security protects us from others.
  • Safety is protection against stupidity, carelessness and happenstance. Security is protection against intentional harm and aggression.
  • Safety is static and procedure-driven. Security is fluid and approach-driven.

Worker safety focuses on rules and procedures based on verifiable historical consequences. They’re static because their foundational problems don’t change. Safety focuses on your actions; if you follow the safety rules, you stay safe. For instance, wearing a hard hat is known to reduce head injuries. If you choose not to wear one, you may get away with your decision, or you may suffer a debilitating blow to the head. However, the potential consequence is a known factor, and ignoring the rules is deliberate. It’s that simple.

Worker security focuses on threats from other people. It’s the unpredictable nature of the other person that makes hostile encounters fluid, not static. Therefore, your approach to security must be fluid and responsive. Effective worker security requires the ability to make quick and decisive judgments about what’s happening, why it’s happening and how to respond. Situational awareness and conflict de-escalation are two essential security elements of this ability.

Situational Awareness
Situational awareness is the foundation of practical worker security, and everything else revolves around it. The U.S. Coast Guard has a great definition: “Situational awareness is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.”

The key phrase is “it’s knowing what is going on around you.” That’s the essence of situational awareness. And it isn’t hard to put into practice. You just need to understand its basic concepts and do a little training.

Effective awareness has macro-level and micro-level components. Macro-level awareness is paying attention to things beyond the horizon, so to speak. It monitors national and local events that may impact you. For example, macro-level awareness includes scrutinizing news coverage of a civil disturbance to determine possible work site impact and considering the potential for hostility stemming from a recent utility rate increase. Employing macro-level awareness allows you to take preemptive steps to avoid collateral violence. After you assess macro-level issues, situational awareness becomes a micro-level exercise.

Micro-level awareness should start before you reach your destination. Look around as you drive to the job site to identify anything that could present a problem. Once on-site, take a moment to look around and gather enough data to understand your surroundings. Your goal is to identify potential threats and establish a baseline of normalcy, i.e., the regular conditions at the location. Once you have a baseline, you can recognize anomalies, which we’ll talk about soon, as well as situational degradation.

Keep in mind that situations tend to worsen in stages. Situational degradation typically begins as subtle changes that get progressively worse. If you didn’t notice things had changed until it’s glaringly apparent something bad is about to happen, it’s more than likely you missed several telltale signs of situational degradation. Establishing a baseline will help avoid this. So, what is a baseline, and how do you establish one?

Establishing a Baseline
A baseline is the collected observations of the environment, setting and population demeanor surrounding you at any given time. The purpose of a baseline is to spot anomalies – things that don’t fit.

The environment is the social setting and physical space that you inhabit at the moment. Each community has its own environment. For example, the environment of an upscale subdivision is different from the environment of a shopping center, which is different from the environment around a welding shop. Each community has its distinctive rhythms, routines, inhabitants, pace, language and code of conduct, all characteristics of its environment.

The setting refers to the changeable elements within the environment that vary with time and conditions. Setting elements include weather, temperature, activity and population.

Demeanor is the behavior and temperament of a community or an individual. An abnormal demeanor of either a community or an individual can be one of the surest signs of trouble.

Anomalies are what you are trying to identify. An anomaly is anything that doesn’t fit into the normal range of expectations. Most anomalies aren’t dangerous, just different; they’re curiosities. An anomaly can be anything from a chicken roaming around the manicured yard of a million-dollar home to a man dancing in the middle of the street. However, any person or thing that poses a threat will also be an anomaly. Pulling information together about an area’s environment, setting and demeanor will give you a baseline to help identify and reconcile anomalies.

With all this said, you need to realize that no matter how hard you try, you can’t maintain heightened awareness all the time. Even attempting to do so will interfere with accomplishing your job. The problem is that awareness and focus are conflicting activities. In other words, you can concentrate on awareness or focus on work, but you can’t do both at the same time. As you focus on work, awareness decays. To offset this loss of awareness, you should take steps to control your immediate surroundings to restrict approach access and be alerted to changes and anomalies. The best way to accomplish this is to build an awareness platform.

Awareness Platforms
Awareness platforms differ in shape and size. They can range from simply positioning yourself so that you can notice someone approaching, to barricading your work area with safety cones and tape, to arranging vehicles and equipment to create a barrier around the work site. Remember, the purpose of an awareness platform is to help you spot anomalies and any changes that crop up while you’re working and to prevent anyone from taking you by surprise. So, take the time to establish a site-appropriate awareness platform.

Practical situational awareness hinges on noticing the little things. By establishing a baseline and creating an awareness platform, you’ll be able to enhance work site security. Situational awareness is a unique security skill set. But luckily, it’s a learnable skill that, with minimal training, you can employ with reasonable effectiveness. Just remember, as with any skill, the more you train and practice, the better you will be.

De-escalation: Another Essential Skill
De-escalation is another crucial security skill set. It allows you to gain command over a confrontation before it can spin out of control. The goal of de-escalation is mastery over escalating hostility without minimizing, insulting or embarrassing the other person. It’s not to win an argument.

Effective de-escalation requires skill. The good news is that it’s a learnable skill that almost anyone can master. With minimal instruction and practice, you can increase your ability to de-escalate conflict and cool down volatile situations.

There are scores of de-escalation programs, but few cover utility worker issues. For example, one of the issues in the field is that the other person usually has the upper hand. They’ll typically have the advantages of location, setting and strength in numbers. The conflict will take place on or adjacent to their property, in their community. They know the area, and they know what resources are available to aid them in the conflict. All of this places you at a disadvantage. But good de-escalation training makes you aware of these advantages and provides methods to counter them.

Hostile encounters often revolve around a core issue that has its origins in fear or a perceived lack of respect. You may not recognize it at first, but it’s there if you look closely enough. And you need to realize that the core issue may be historical. It can be something that occurred months, years or decades ago. It could even be something that happened to someone else. But whatever it is, it’s still very real and relevant to the person involved.

Once you’ve identified and dealt with the core issue, the chances of de-escalating a conflict rise significantly, and it’ll be time to put your de-escalation skills to work. If you believe you can de-escalate the situation, give it a try; you’ll be surprised how easy most conflicts are to defuse. But understand, you can’t de-escalate every situation. Confrontations are fluid and can become violent astonishingly fast. So, be mindful of signs that the conversation is deteriorating. And if you see the situation spiraling out of control, leave.

Training Considerations
To become proficient at using security skills such as situational awareness and de-escalation takes practice and a commitment to learning. Look for training that addresses the problems faced in the field. And find a trainer who understands the unique needs of your profession.

However, finding the right training program and trainer can be challenging. When you start looking, you’ll find people everywhere claiming security expertise. Many people will have excellent capabilities, but some are charlatans. Also, be aware that a lot of training is more tactical and theoretical than work-related.

Just as good civilian worker-focused security training isn’t all theory and formula, it’s also distinctly different from military or law enforcement security training. Effective worker-focused training pulls relevant parts of military or law enforcement methods into a down-to-earth program supported by practical experience. So, make sure your training meets your specific needs.

Finally, remember that your security is your responsibility. Violence can erupt anywhere at any time. But practical security skills can give you the confidence to live life to the fullest. So, take steps to gain the skills you need. And when the opportunity arises, help bring attention to the need for enhanced worker security.

About the Author: Jim Willis is president of InDev Tactical, a security training and consulting firm. He is a utility engineer, industry professional, and credentialed homeland security and anti-terrorism expert. Jim’s utility and security work has brought him into more than 30 countries and numerous combat zones. Reach him at 703-623-6819 or

Safety Management, Featured