In early October, the flagger for a Lewis Tree Service mowing crew noticed that a gas line shared the corridor on a utility right-of-way. The general foreman conducted a pre-job walkthrough with the crew. The terrain was uneven, slippery, covered in thick brush and, in it, they found debris from an old railroad. As the general foreman came closer to the pipeline, he smelled gas and immediately cleared the area from phones, lighters, or anything that could cause a spark or flame. One hour later, the gas company arrived and confirmed the leak. Javier, the general foreman, reported this close call through the Lewis safety app where it has since been studied and discussed.
Javier’s immediate actions may have saved a life.
Good Practice #1: Learning from What Goes Well
At Lewis, we believe that close calls are culture-shaping opportunities. In the pipeline situation, the flagger was scanning the environment (i.e., employing situational awareness). In addition, leadership was not only present but engaged in walking the terrain and marking hazards with his team. The general foreman displayed a willingness to do the hard work necessary to keep his crews safe and had genuine empathy for how difficult the work is. In the conversation reviewing this close call, leadership probed and praised the actions of the general foreman and crew that enabled them to notice, understand, and forecast to manage the risks so well. Questions to ask when studying any close call are “what enabled it to go well?” and “what kept it from being worse?”. We’ve noticed that there are always things that went well in any close call or incident.
Good Practice #2: Analyzing Close Calls for Common Risk Factors
Without studying close calls, we are operating blind. When reviewing incidents alone, we miss the opportunity to learn from the number of times that close calls occurred and analyze the related trends/common risk factors. Over the past year at Lewis, we recorded close calls with serious injury potential in five key areas that may not have come to light otherwise: line of fire (vehicle and equipment), struck-by tree or limb, electrical contact, collision and fall from height. For example, when considering close calls related to being struck by a tree or limb, we found they often happen on the last cut and may involve a new team member. We talk about why breakdowns occur during the last cut and teach that when we have a new team member, we have a new team, and the entire team must communicate differently. We use this information to get in front of the risk; noticing when risk is stacking-up so we can better manage it.
Good Practice #3: Providing Real-Time Guidance on Emergent Risks
The 2020 storm season was one of the most active hurricane seasons on record. It was also the first year Lewis rigorously encouraged the craftworkers deployed on storm to enter close calls into our safety app nightly. This collection of stories enabled leadership to understand storm-specific risks and provide real-time support and guidance to the crews. During Hurricane Laura, for example, one of the hazards trending on our safety app was related to vehicles hitting low hanging wires (e.g., cars, debris haulers, a garbage truck, a UPS van). We immediately alerted our teams to a) send a lookout ahead to scan roads for obstacles, and b) put flaggers in traffic to warn drivers of low wires.
Good Practice #4: Preparing for What Could Go Wrong
There’s a now-famous story of the day when Michael Phelps was competing in the Beijing Olympics for a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly and his goggles filled with water. He was literally swimming blind. Yet not only did he win the gold, he also broke the world record. Michael did not specifically prepare to swim blind; however, he had envisioned the perfect race in his mind (i.e., work as planned) and prepared mentally for what obstacles he may encounter (i.e., work as done) by knowing the exact number of strokes required to reach each end of the pool and what level of effort was required to finish.
By studying and learning from close calls, common risk factors, and good practices, we are better prepared to adapt and overcome when challenges present themselves in the highly variable work of utility vegetation management.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of the Utility Arborist Association Newsline.