Incident Prevention Magazine

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The Power of Human Intuition

Some time ago, two of my students and I observed as two operators replaced fuses on a 6.9-kV electrical bus. Both operators were new to this task that had only recently been turned over to them from their company’s electrical department. When my students and I approached the bus from the front side, I noticed that it was energized. We started our observation in a bus cubicle where the breaker was racked out and de-energized. The operators replaced fuses in a compartment above the breaker cubicle without physically opening the breaker cubicle door, only the compartment above. This was accomplished using gloves for PPE. Once the task was completed, the operators went to the back side of the bus. They began to open the large back door of another breaker cubicle, and at that point the hair on my arms stood up and the little voice inside my head asked, “Isn’t that breaker cubicle energized? I don’t think this is the same breaker cubicle, and why are they doing this without arc protective gear?”

I quickly went to the front of the bus and verified that yes, the breaker in that cubicle was energized. I asked one of my students if what he was witnessing seemed OK to him, but I received no immediate response. Before the operators could remove the final bolts and open the door, I made a decision to stop the activity. I asked the operators to re-bolt the door and back away so we could have a discussion, and they obliged.

During our discussion, I asked the operators if the cubicle was energized, and they appeared uncertain. I then asked them what they had planned to do once the door was open. They said they were going to step inside the cube, reach above their heads and replace the fuses. At that point I asked where their feet would be positioned and what they would be standing next to. It was at that point that the journeyman operator looked at the apprentice operator and exclaimed, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” The journeyman realized that, had he followed through with the original plan, he would have put the apprentice in danger due to the proximity of the energized bus bar. Additionally, neither of them had brought arc protective gear to wear while working.

Listen to Your Gut
By now, we’ve all heard the phrase “Listen to your gut.” It’s a piece of advice that nearly everyone has been given at least once in their lives, and for good reason – gut feelings are incredibly accurate. They are derived from your intuition, which is made up of all your life’s experiences, both personal and professional. When you get a gut feeling, it may make itself known through a strange sensation in your stomach or another part of your body. In the scenario above, the hair on my arms stood on end. That was a physical manifestation of my intuition trying to tell me that something about the situation I found myself in was different or not quite right.

In the utility safety industry, some people refer to a person’s intuition as their “questioning attitude.” You can think of your questioning attitude as the voice inside your head, the one that asks, “What’s this?” or “Why is this different?” Your questioning attitude tells you that you are uncertain about something that is right in front of you. And this is where triggers come in.

Triggers are the actual cues that tell you a situation is not quite right; they are what prompt the voice in your head to ask questions. When you sense that there is something wrong within a given situation, typically one of two things is occurring: Either you may be familiar with the situation, but it’s a bit different than what you have typically experienced in the past, or the situation is completely different than what you expected based on prior experiences. This could occur, for example, when you are performing a live-dead-live check and discover voltage when you weren’t expecting to find any.

When you’re confronted with a trigger and your questioning attitude kicks in, this is a clear sign that you are uncertain about the situation you are facing. The best choice you can make when you’re feeling unsure is to simply stop what you’re doing. In the situation I described earlier in this Tailgate, I halted the job to ensure the operators understood what was happening and to prevent any injury to them. This turned out to be the right and safest action to take.

So, the next time the hair on your arms or the back of your necks starts to stand up, or your body is giving you other indicators of uncertainty, stop what you’re doing as soon as possible and listen to what your gut is telling you – that something could go wrong and you might be in danger. And if I haven’t convinced you of the power of your own intuition, consider picking up a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” which provides a wealth of research data and anecdotal information about the power of gut feelings and human intuition.

About the Author: Rey Gonzalez is owner and president of HOPE Consulting LLC. He is an electrical generation professional with 35 years of diverse technical and organizational experience. Gonzalez has studied human behavior and organizational effectiveness over the past 20 years, with a focus on methods to improve hazard identification and enhance performance.

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Monday, 17 June 2019

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