Have you ever reflected on the moment when an accident or injury occurred? During that period of reflection, did you think about the decisions you made that may have played a part in the incident? A common thread I have discovered among many incidents is that we sometimes make the choice to proceed with a certain step in a process or activity despite the fact that we are unsure of exactly how to safely and correctly do so.
In retrospect, we know the step is one that we obviously should not have taken. It’s that simple. Instead of moving forward, we should have stopped and asked, am I really sure about what I am about to do? Do I fully understand what is going to happen when I perform this step?
Far too often, we find ourselves in a place of uncertainty and talk ourselves into going ahead with an action. Based on various root cause evaluations I have reviewed over the past several years, it has become more evident that we are creatures of habit who want to accomplish our tasks without failure. It has also become clear that many organizations have not provided enough resources to thwart this and related issues. The root cause of an incident is found to be human error and we leave it at that. But what about organizational weaknesses, such as failing to identify the need for more specific guidance or to provide stop-work criteria?
Stop-work criteria can be defined as conditions that warrant stopping work until the employees responsible for the work have a clear understanding of how to properly perform their assigned task. Reasons to stop work on a job site include a scope change, missing information, incorrect drawings and wrong equipment. There may also be other reasons to cease work that your team identifies. It is incumbent upon the employer to provide details to all employees about the conditions that generate the expectation to terminate a task.
Stopping our work when we’re unsure can make us feel less than successful. We may sense that we are letting down our co-workers or causing a problem for our supervisor. This is a natural reaction. We have been trained to do our work expeditiously, but a number of us have not been trained on how to stop.
In a typical utility setting we are constantly measured by time. Whether utility professionals are re-energizing lines, setting poles or constructing new transmission grids, the feeling of necessity to finish ahead of schedule can become a distraction or error trap. Time pressure creates a sense of urgency that drives people to take shortcuts, perform haphazardly and feel compelled to keep going even when they do not know what they are doing. As the tacit knowledge leaves our industry and newer, less experienced employees come aboard, it will be increasingly important to train our valuable employees about the appropriate ways to stop work.
Become a High-Reliability Organization
High-reliability organizations, such as those that deliver commercial flight, nuclear power and medical services, learned this lesson of providing stop-work criteria a long time ago. To become a high-reliability organization, you have to be able to continuously succeed where others in similar situations fail. Training your employees to stop work when they feel unsure provides a mechanism to prevent catastrophic mistakes.
When developing stop-work training and written guidance, utilities must consider three groups: individuals, leadership and the organization. Individuals need to be made aware of conditional factors that warrant stopping work and given the power to stop without repercussions. Leadership has to provide the appropriate coaching for employees to feel comfortable stopping work, and they must deliver timely, positive reinforcement when it happens. The organization has to collectively determine stop-work criteria and identify them in procedures and training modules. The organization should include the idea of stop-work authorization in their values and expectations.
Stopping work is not easy. If workers or leaders are negatively impacted based on their decision to stop work, it could possibly chill the entire workforce and foster an environment in which employees are willing to take unnecessary risks. Providing clear guidance about the stop-work expectation is critical to generating and sustaining a healthy safety culture.
Consider this: High-reliability organizations are referred to as such because they continuously strive for excellence. They are competent in what they do and typically do not fail. Getting ahead of conditions that test people’s willingness to take risks is one way that these organizations work to prevent errors and unwanted outcomes, and your organization can do the same. Providing explicit direction about exactly what we want and how we want to achieve it replaces vague and interpretive expectations, removing the potential for catastrophic events. Teaching employees when and how to stop is how you can clearly deliver the message that their safety is an organizational priority and you don’t want them to have to guess how work should be done.
About the Author: David Bowman is CEO of Knowledge Vine LLC (www.knowledgevine.com). He has more than 25 years of industrial experience gained through his work in the petrochemical, nuclear power, fossil fuel generation and utility transmission and distribution industries. Bowman is also a subject matter expert in human performance and led those efforts for Entergy Corp. for more than 12 years before founding Knowledge Vine. He holds a bachelor’s degree in safety engineering.
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