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Building Adaptive Capacity in Utility Vegetation Management

Posted by Beth Lay, Director of Safety and Human Performance on Nov 9, 2020 4:33:10 PM

We Hire and Train for Safety with Adaptive Capacity

Our work environments are highly variable and include difficult terrains, changing and extreme weather conditions, myriad tree species/conditions, and energized lines

As most reading this can attest, for decades the traditional view of safety in the utility line clearance industry centered around defining and following policies and practices such as using drop zones to keep people from entering a work zone while work is performed aloft. While this is certainly important, it’s not enough. Our crews work in difficult terrains, under changing and extreme weather conditions, with myriad tree species and conditions, and close to energized lines. The level of variability is extraordinary. Compared with factory safety, there is very little in the work environment that a tree worker has control over.

As Zig Ziglar is quoted as saying, “The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist.” In utility vegetation management, we need to first acknowledge that variability exists. This profound understanding can then influence how safety is perceived and accomplished in everyday work—and the tools and practices become an active way to create safety.

When we acknowledge that tree work is performed in a highly variable, dynamic work environment, we realize we must manage safety differently.

Updating the Definition of Safety

It’s time to update the definition of safety to reflect the fact that variability is inevitable. Bee stings will still happen. The wind will always shift. Danger trees will continue to surprise us. Therefore, instead of setting unachievable and demotivating zero-tolerance goals, we must now agree to study and learn from factors that indicate increased serious injury potential (SIP) risk:

  • Changing phases of work (e.g., making the last cut when others think we’re already done)
  • Workers are inexperienced or new to the team and don’t notice critical cues
  • It’s just before a break or the end of the day
  • Something is hung (e.g., limb, piece of tree, saw)
  • The tree has a heavy lean or is in poor condition
  • Dead or decayed wood is present
  • There are heavy vines or entwined canopies
  • The crew member is in an awkward position (e.g., bracing to make a cut on an incline)

But that’s only the first half of the story. It’s also time to add a secondary, yet more important element, to the definition of safety: to increase adaptive capacity. To actively create safety in a variable environment, we need to be in continuous practice to improvise, adapt, and overcome.

Tools and Practices to Build Adaptive Capacity

Adaptive capacity is having the flexibility and resources (e.g., time, equipment, tools, knowledge, space) to change the way a person or team operates. Put simply, it means having options ready to deploy. It’s easy to remember as the ability to “re” think the work!

  • Re-plan—work steps and action sequences
  • Re-adjust—timelines, positions of people and equipment
  • Re-organize—duties, roles, and responsibilities
  • Re-allocate—resources, priorities


Some examples of deliberately building adaptive capacity include:

  • Building expertise (one tool, the AAR, is described in the following section)
  • Noticing increased risk then responding differently (one tool, Press Pause, is described in the following section)
  • Preparing options to respond (e.g., know when and how to make different cuts, have different tools/equipment available to fell a tree, have experienced climber with gear nearby when training less experienced climber)
  • Dropping in an expert (e.g., have an operations leader travel to where help is needed during storm response)
  • Job shadowing across roles to increase the ability to understand and respond to each other’s needs

After-Action Review (AAR)

An AAR is a simple, six-question, learning tool that can be used for improving work and developing people. We perform AARs after we were surprised, after a plan changed significantly, after work went exceptionally well, or after an event. The premise of the AAR is simple: we can learn the hard way (i.e., through trial and error) or the easy way (by learning from others and taking a moment to reflect on our own work). And what better way to learn than through studying, and replicating, what went well?

  1. What was expected to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What surprised us?
  4. What went well and why?
  5. What could be improved and how?
  6. What did we learn that would help others?

Press Pause

Press Pause is a brief review of critical cues, risks and hazards at the job site to increase situation awareness—and spot a problem before it happens. Press Pause works well when a) beginning or changing tasks, b) a high level of attention is needed, c) something changes in the environment, or d) there is a new crew member. There are three keys to increasing situation awareness:

  1. Noticing: What is going on around us? What are my teammates doing now? Where are they? What do I need to pay close attention to? What’s making me or my teammates uneasy about
    our work today?
  2. Understanding: What does this mean? What’s different that makes this riskier? Where might risk be hidden? What is uncertain? Who can I ask to take a second look?
  3. Forecasting: What could happen next? What are my teammates going to do next? Where are they going to be? Are we out of the line of fire? If tree or limb falls unexpectedly, what’s most likely to happen? Where could it fall? How could we be surprised?

Recognizing Uncertainty

Lastly, let’s close with an emerging direction in human performance: helping people notice when they or others are feeling uncertain. We’re discovering that uncertainty may appear as a gut feeling that something isn't right just before taking a critical step (i.e., actions where there are no “do overs”). Examples include putting a vehicle into motion, cutting or releasing wood aloft, feeding brush into a chipper, engaging the throttle on a chainsaw, climbing a tree, and felling a tree/making a back cut. At Lewis Tree Service, we’re rolling out a program called B4I (a.k.a. before I . . .) which contains a series of risk-important actions to conduct prior to taking a critical step such as: choose a position outside the line of fire, verify the drop zone is clear, communicate “all clear?” before cutting begins, etc.

When we focus on and learn from what must go right, we’ll help to better manage risks with serious injury potential and increase our adaptive capacity.

This article originally appeared in the vegetation management supplement of T&D World magazine. 

Topics: creating safety, situational awareness, press pause, adaptive capacity, uncertainty

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