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The Importance of Situational Awareness in the Utility Industry

Years ago I read an account of an injury that took place on a U.S. Army base in California. I’m not sure if this account is truth or fiction, but it serves to illustrate a point about the importance of thinking a plan all the way through prior to implementing it.

A private was assigned the job of removing broken Spanish tiles from a rooftop after a large tree fell on the building. He was ordered not to throw the tiles off the roof. The private drove a jeep to the site and assessed his work.

There were lots of broken tiles, and it would take many trips up and down a ladder using the canvas he had to wrap them in. The building had an empty rain barrel, the private had a rope and a block and tackle, and a brilliant plan formed in the private’s head. He climbed a ladder to the edge of the roof and tied the block and tackle to a beam left exposed by the damage. He threaded the rope and lowered it to the ground. He went back down the ladder, attached the rope to the barrel and raised it to roof level, and tied the rope off to the bumper of the jeep.

The private went back up the ladder and quickly filled the barrel with broken tiles. This was going to be a piece of cake. He went back down the ladder thinking he would be done in three barrels’ worth. He untied the rope from the bumper and held onto it.

Can you guess what happened next?

Given the weight of the tile, the rain barrel was now heavier than the private and lifted him off the ground. As he was lifted, the private met the descending barrel midway, which caused considerable injury to his face and forearms. The velocity of his ascent also jammed his fingers into the block and tackle, and his fingers were damaged in the pulley. And when the barrel hit the ground, the bottom broke out, spreading tile shards all over the place. Because the private was now heavier than the barrel, he fell. On his way down, he once again met the barrel, causing serious damage to his feet and knees. When the private hit the ground and landed on the broken tiles, he received multiple abrasions, contusions and cuts from the broken tiles. And then, having temporarily lost his train of thought, the private let go of the rope.

Think Before You Act
As utility workers, we must always be aware of all the bad things that can happen when we put a plan in place. In the account above, it’s clear that the private didn’t think through the potential hazards of his plan before he began to execute it. To further drive home the importance of thinking before you act, following are three examples of crews that were so focused on their desired results that they failed to consider potential problems in a big way.

1. A crew used a rental trailer to haul a digger they had used for years. The rental trailer was shorter than the trailer they had used in the past. To load the trailer, they had to pull in the bucket of the digger so it rested on the trailer. This raised the knuckle of the boom so it was 1 inch higher than an underpass they went through on the way back to the yard. No one was injured, but the digger and underpass were badly damaged, and the situation created a huge traffic jam.

2. A streetlight crew was having difficulty with vandalism in their yard, so they got in the habit of putting their tools in the bucket and raising it for overnight storage. One Monday morning they were having a good time discussing the weekend football games and drove out of the yard without lowering the bucket. They didn’t get very far. That one moment of forgetfulness made their job unprofitable for over a year.

3. A crew got a bucket truck stuck in some deep sand. They moved the digger derrick in as close as they could, intending to use the winch line to pull out the bucket truck. They were approximately 20 feet short, so they used a chain to make up the difference. The chain was rated at less than half the weight of the bucket truck, without considering the drag from the wheels buried in sand. You’ll never guess what happened. The recoil of the chain, when it broke, caused the end link of the chain to slam into the windshield of the bucket truck, spraying the driver with shards of glass. The chain broke about 17 feet out from the bucket truck. If it had broken at the end, 3 feet of chain would have entered the cab of that bucket truck with a lot of force. The driver of the truck was more than aware of what that would have done.

The moral of these stories is simple: When improvising work plans or solutions to job site problems, it is critical to consider all of the possibilities. I often use the “STAR” acronym in such situations. If crews and individuals do the following, any hidden hazard will almost always come to the surface so it can be addressed:
• STOP – Halt the work.
• THINK – Carefully consider the new idea and think about what could happen during execution, even if the chances are slight.
• ACT – Try out the plan, being careful to stay out of harm’s way as you try.
• REVIEW – Get feedback from crew members, make any necessary changes and proceed with caution.

About the Author: Kelly Sparrow, CUSP, J.D., works as a consultant for Ambient Safety LLC. He has extensive experience teaching safety leadership principles, investigating serious industrial and third-party injuries, and laying safety foundations that encourage employees to form a safety culture.

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