In late 2012, Anders Eugensson, the head of government affairs for Volvo Car Corporation, made the bold claim that Volvo would have zero deaths or injuries in its new cars as of 2020 thanks to smart functions in its vehicles. In other words, Volvo was recognizing that accidents will continue to happen due to driver error, severe weather, poor road conditions, etc. but Volvo was dedicated to managing risk through better design.
This is a perfect example of the shift from a singular focus on preventing bad things from happening to investing in capabilities to adapt when bad things inevitably occur (e.g., hurricanes, cyber breaches, equipment failure, workplace incidents).
Where would we be now if automobile manufacturers had put all their money and efforts toward preventing crashes instead of accepting that people in autos will crash and protecting us during those events?
Like Volvo, we must look beyond asking “how do we prevent this from happening again?” to “how well will we respond when this does happen?”
Surprise is inescapable. Surprise is a normal part of work.
A resilient organization adapts effectively to surprise.
At Lewis Tree Service, we spent a significant amount of time and resources throughout 2019 creating a crisis preparedness plan yet never expecting a global pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, we had already built flexibility into our system that enabled us to shift to home offices without skipping a beat.
In a similar vein, every company in this industry knows that hurricane season arrives annually. Performing daily After Action Reviews throughout the storm season enables us to build lessons learned and good practices into our storm playbook and, importantly, helps us know where to design extra capacity into our system. This enables us to provide a stronger response to our utility partners year-over-year. We are preparing to respond more effectively to storms (i.e., our new norm).
The same line of thinking holds true for incident preparedness. Traditional safety tends to put the most weight on predicting and preventing incidents with a focus on control (or minimizing the variance associated with humans doing work). Traditional safety often claims that “all injuries are preventable.”
Are all injuries truly preventable?
In early 2009, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger piloted a US Airways flight to a crash landing on the Hudson River after a bird strike that caused the plane to lose power in both engines. When describing his heroic response, the renowned aeronautics safety expert stated, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
This aviation lesson can be directly applied to utility line clearance: we need to balance more effectively preventing incidents with preparing to respond when surprise does occur. We all know of incidents where our highly skilled workers did everything right and an unforeseeable failure of tree or line resulted in an injury. Industry-wide, we need to embrace the fact that variability is inevitable, and surprise will happen.
The Shape of Surprise
Resilience Engineers anticipate general surprise. We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we do know that in fast-paced, high-risk situations, something is likely to happen. A limb will fall unexpectedly. Objects will be hidden in our brush. A motorist will veer toward our work zone.
When rebalancing our approach to safety to embrace variability and accept surprise, we must first recognize that safety is actively accomplished as part of everyday work. This includes:
- Training our craftworkers to notice signs of increasing uncertainty, emerging risk, or coming trouble
- In action: Plan the work but press pause and replan when our understanding of the situation changes
- Putting structure in place to manage work differently
- In action: Encourage team members who are new to a position or situation to reach out for help when they have doubts or concerns
When something doesn’t seem right, we feel it in our gut. The good news is that we can train our team members to recognize the cues and uncover when they’re facing potentially risky trade-off decisions. By monitoring for certain words, expressions, gestures, and emotions, we can actively notice the immediate, often changing, situation and pause, reflect, and ask for help.
The Shape of Preparedness
The best defense for surprise is to be prepared to respond to emergent risk and uncertainty. Last year, during storm restoration in Jamaica, NY, a Lewis crew arrived at a jobsite where a large sycamore tree had fallen on the power lines. It was detained by the secondary and communication lines and the wood was under tension. In this situation, the crew recognized that a form of surprise was present in potential, or stored, energy. In addition, the crew noticed that the houses still had power because the lights were on and they could hear loud music. Based on their situational awareness, the General Foreman “pressed pause,” reached out to the coordinator, and had the lines grounded before continuing.
Successfully preparing for this type of surprise goes beyond reminding crews about stored energy (although that’s a good start). Engaging teams in personal conversations and asking them to share stories about times when they were surprised by silent generators, wires or wood under tension can go a longer way to make risk real.
Other examples of preparedness include:
- Using fall protection which assumes that workers will fall but in a controlled fashion (i.e., fail safely)
- Preparing the public to save lives if people nearby are severely bleeding
- Wearing the Army’s new integrated head protection system, a lightweight helmet that can withstand the blunt force impact of a bullet
All of these are excellent measures to manage surprise; however, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. We must learn how to be resilient and, together, bring innovations from other industries that will help our crews succeed under varying conditions. Like Captain Sullenberger, we will succeed by intentionally diversifying our experiences to enable us to successfully adapt.
Sometimes surprise is sudden; sometimes surprise creeps up.
In a prime utility arborist example, when a lift boom fails, there can be little warning, and possibly no second chance. While this may appear to be a sudden surprise at the time, the booms on our bucket trucks are extremely resilient to failure. Surprise creeps up if we abuse our booms over time, putting them through stresses they are not designed for, and possibly causing fractures in the fiberglass.
If a boom is struck by an object, strikes another object like an underpass, or is pressed too hard against something and gives way (e.g., violently rocking a foot or more), those are immediate indicators to ensure the boom is checked by an authorized mechanic.
- To prevent damage that we cannot see, we should only use the boom for what it is designed for and nothing else.
- To notice potential boom failure, we strengthen our situational awareness by noticing both strong and weak signals, for example hearing the fiber glass creak or pop, feeling resistance in the controls, or the boom moving slightly in an unexpected way.
- To prepare for boom failure, we plan and practice our response for being stuck aloft.
Instead of ignoring any weak signals, leaders encourage team members to trust their instincts and press pause, whenever needed, to call an expert, get another pair of eyes or come together as a team to determine the safest path forward. It’s safer to foster a culture of learning than a culture of risk-taking.
While incident reduction through good practices remains critical (e.g., never enter an active drop zone or never use a chainsaw with one hand), we have an opportunity to put greater efforts toward preparedness.
From shifting weather patterns to wires under tension or dead and dying trees, our work conditions are complex and hazardous. No two jobsites are the same. There are a hundred different ways to take down a tree. Given the serious risks and high degree of variability inherent in our industry, we collectively need to challenge the belief that “all injuries are preventable” and begin focusing on failing safely, increasing flexibility, and adding adaptive capacity.
 “Volvo Eyes 'No-death' Goal in its New Cars by 2020,” Agence France-Presse, IndustryWeek, December 3, 2012.
 “Wisdom of the Elders,” Bill Newcott, AARP Magazine, May–June 2009.