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Simplifying Tasks to Improve Worker Safety

The prevailing wisdom is that experience prepares you for what’s to come – that if we have done something in the past, we are better prepared to handle it when we must do it again. For the most part, I think that is accurate. It is the reason we tell our young children not to touch a hot stove, and, as they get older, we caution them not to drink too many happy hour specials. We have been there, done that, and we know the results were not always ideal.

But, as with most things, there are exceptions to the rule.

For example, I am currently teaching my youngest child to drive. This is my second time around this particular block; I taught my oldest child to drive about six years ago. Now, I went into this exercise with my youngest child with the mindset that it would be similar to my time in the field teaching younger apprentices. I thought I was going to use my lessons learned during decades of driving, combine that with my experience in teaching a new driver six years ago, add in a few heaping tablespoons of formal driver training tidbits, and voilà: I’d have a safe teenage driver.

It turned out that was wishful thinking. Thus far during our lessons, I have made numerous exclamations of “Cover the brake!” “Easy!” “You need to move over, you’re too close to my side of the road!” and a common favorite, “You’re taking this corner too sharp, you’re going to run over the cur- – yup, that curb.” I have been able to remain calm in the car with my son, so as not to add to his anxiety, but I was not nearly as prepared as I expected to be while taking on this endeavor. That got me thinking: If I feel this unprepared, how is my child feeling? And in terms of the workplace, how do our workers who take on different training opportunities feel about their post-training preparedness? Are we giving them what they need to be successful on the job?

Here’s another question: Have you asked your employees lately how prepared they feel to complete the tasks assigned to them? I am assuming your organizational chart contains a group of employees who lead other employees in some capacity. In my specific employment situation, we have employees who lead, teach and train newer and/or lesser trained employees. We provide them with training and then send them out into the real world. They get in a vehicle, drive to a job site, formulate the job plan, identify hazards and execute the task. But are they truly prepared to do so?

If you answered yes, let me ask you: Why do you think that? Why do you consider them ready? Is it because they have been around for a handful of years or perhaps decades? Is it because they have done the job you are sending them to do a few times or maybe even countless times? Is it because they have passed some online training courses and you watched them in the field once or twice? I would argue that these things don’t make anyone wholly prepared. As leaders, I believe we need to do more to prepare our employees – and I believe we need to do it STAT.

Simplify The Actual Task
By STAT, I mean Simplify The Actual Task. Almost everyone in the utility safety industry has heard about and practiced situational awareness, the art of being aware of what is around us. But we can take it a step further when we think in terms of STAT. For example, think of a photo you have saved on your smartphone. You can see the photo in your gallery, but when you want to be able to look at it more closely, you zoom in. We need to do the same thing with situational awareness. Zoom in on it. Break it down. Get into the details.

When we talk situational awareness, the conversation is almost always high level (e.g., cover for minimum approach distance, watch the traffic and so on). We should be zooming in on that conversation and asking questions. What is the actual task being performed? Have we broken it down into smaller segments? Do we understand the situational awareness needed for each of those segments? Covering for MAD is great, but when covering, did we also notice the insulator that is cracked or the tie that is broken? Or let’s say we are walking through a backyard, noticed dog toys and made sure there is no dog – but did we see the wasp nest near the transformer?

Absolute safety is in the details. Breaking down a complex process into more simplified tasks can help us identify hazards more easily. And being able to identify hazards more easily – whether it’s a broken tie wire or, in the case of my earlier story, a high curb that my son might hit with the car – could mean the difference between safe execution of a task and an incident occurring. If you haven’t already, it’s time to start thinking about applying this method to your own work and preparing your employees to do the same.

About the Author: Jeffrey Sullivan works as area operations support manager for Duke Energy in Largo, Florida. He has been employed in the electric utility industry for over 20 years at various companies.

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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.