The Significance of Critical Steps at the Work Site

A “critical step” is an action that can trigger immediate, irreversible harm to people and assets if it is improperly performed. Such a step occurs in our industry whenever an action involves a substantial transfer of energy, movement of weight, or transference of something else that could cause or result in harm to a person or asset.

Who engages in these critical steps that can cause harm to people and property? It’s us, human beings, and we can cause harm because of our many fallibilities and vulnerabilities. Think about this question for a moment: Do you need a parachute to jump out of an airplane that’s in flight? Not really, but if you want to make that jump more than once – or do much of anything afterward – you absolutely need a parachute. Put simply, there are certain actions that must be done correctly every single time they are performed. A wrong move at the point of no return could result in serious injury to people and serious damage to property or the environment. If costly enough, that damage could threaten the viability of the entire organization.

Of course, not all incidents or errors can or will lead to serious harm, but there are still many that have the potential to do so. Specific areas in which critical steps can cause injury, damage or loss must be identified and assessed before work begins and any of those actions are taken. Some critical steps at a utility work site include cutting through a cable and digging into the ground with mechanized equipment. As another example, consider the use of a pistol. You can take it apart, clean it, load it and cock the hammer. None of these steps is considered critical. That’s because one of the most important attributes of a critical step is that when it occurs, harm usually happens faster than a person can respond to it. In many cases, there is simply no turning back; you cannot undo the harm by reversing the action. There is no means to restore the asset to its previous state, or the individual has no means to regain control of a transfer of energy or weight. In the case of the loaded pistol, as soon as you pull its trigger, a bullet is released – an action you cannot undo that could cause great harm. So, in such a situation, failure should not be an option.

Routine vs. Critical
Do you remember all of your situational awareness training? Well, detecting the difference between routine steps versus critical steps works similarly to detecting anomalies at the work site. A step can be routine, but a routine step can also become a critical step. For instance, how about wearing your seat belt? That’s an important routine step you take whenever you get inside a vehicle, right? But if you end up crashing your vehicle into a tree during your drive, fastening your seat belt before starting the engine just became the most critical step you’ve taken recently.

Let’s take that example a bit further. Is walking something you would normally put on your job briefing as a critical step? No, but what if you only had icy swamp mats to walk on throughout your entire work site? You would expect that slips and falls could occur, and that extra attention while walking would be necessary. So, how should you respond to the prospect of having to walk and work on icy swamp mats? Use extra caution and ask for Yaktrax or a similar traction system – because the simple act of safely walking around the site has been elevated from a routine activity to a critical one.

Use the STAR Method
In closing, dear readers, before making a critical step, consider using the tried-and-true STAR method: stop (pause before making a critical step); think (gain understanding about what will happen when you make the step); act (perform the step correctly); and review (verify the anticipated result was obtained). During your review, assess how things went. Did you have to stop more than once? That’s OK. Did you need to make changes to today’s plan? That’s good, too. The most important thing is to perform your work safely and correctly for the best results possible.

About the Author: R. Neal Gracey is an operations training manager for Henkels & McCoy Inc., a MasTec company.

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