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Gauging Uncertainty

Posted by Beth Lay, Director of Safety and Human Performance on May 27, 2021 4:47:00 PM

What does it look like to relentlessly pursue the elimination of serious injuries? Among other things, it means treating incidents and close calls with serious injury potential like fatalities and conducting thorough investigations.

Human Performance Utility Line Clearance Gauging Uncertainty

In August 2020, en route to investigate a serious incident, I had an epiphany while reading Workplace Fatalities: Failure to Predict[1] as I came upon the following lines, “The things that kill workers are not the things with the highest perceived risk. The things that kill workers seem to be the things that are the most difficult to control.”

Over the past few years, Todd Conklin, a Senior Advisor at Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the world’s foremost R&D laboratories in safety and human performance, has been spearheading the concept of reframing risk in terms of controllability. Yet, I hadn’t quite made the connection to vegetation management.

Prior to that a-ha moment, our safety and human performance team was grappling with the high level of risk in our industry. We would repeatedly hear statements from our operations team confirming that everything we do in utility line clearance is high risk—second only to the special forces. In response, we created comprehensive risk assessments including a “See the Tree: Ground to Crown and All Around” tool which is focused on the properties and conditions of the tree. While this remains a helpful tool, in practice we discovered two noteworthy items: 1) all trees, when evaluated, will contain some elements of risk and 2) the assessment tool does not account for the skills and knowledge level of the saw operator.

This led us to adopt the adage, “risk is in the eye of the beholder.” In other words, in a high-risk environment, risk may be defined as the degree to which a worker is facing uncertainty[2]. Resilience Engineers use uncertainty as a signal to pull out of “tunnel vision,” actively seek more information, and ask for other’s help.

During that same trip, we used our GPS-based crew locate system to show up unannounced at a job site. When we arrived, we saw an operator with his bucket fully extended aside a tall, dead, yellow pine. The tree had a large area of decay and a spot where lightening had seared the trunk. The operator had not yet begun working as the bucket could not reach the dead branches overhead.

Importantly for us, we could see clear signs of uncertainty (or risk flags) in the operator’s language and posture. We pressed pause to assess the situation more effectively and conducted a video risk assessment with one of our training and safety supervisors who is skilled in the risks associated with dead and decaying trees. As he began asking questions of the crew, we realized that the key to assessing risk was in our ability to notice or recognize uncertainty in ourselves and others. And with that, the concept of our organization’s 10-point scale for gauging uncertainty was born.

We now have the language and a human performance tool to gauge the degree of uncertainty in any given situation. Using this tool, we can ask one another, “What’s your number?” If the numbers among the team differ, it opens a conversation about what each person notices and different methods to do the work. At Lewis, our General Forepersons are using the uncertainty gauge to let crews know when they want to be consulted (e.g., “call me if it rates a five or more”).

Our working definition of risk tolerance is the level of risk a person or organization is willing to accept. Risk tolerance is not fixed; rather, it is dependent on past experiences, context, biases, and social forces including the culture of the workgroup. We have since developed a series of questions our craftworkers and leadership will ask each other to determine risk tolerance.

Let’s work together to create safety.

This article was originally published in the March/April edition of the Utility Arborist Association Newsline

[1] Todd E. Conklin, Workplace Fatalities: Failure to Predict (Create Space Publishing, May 2017)

[2] Conklin, Workplace Fatalities

Topics: human performance, uncertainty, risk tolerance

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