Early on, someone said to me “There are a hundred ways to take a tree down.” No two trees are the same. Landscapes differ. Weather conditions change. The level of experience and amount of training varies per crew member. There is not one best way to take a tree down. While these takeaways may seem obvious to the readers of this publication, the extent of the variability and extent of risk was a real eye-opener to me—a newcomer to this industry.
What I’ve Learned in My First Six Months in Utility Vegetation Management
Since joining Lewis Tree Service last September, I have learned, and continue to learn, great lessons about vegetation management. Following are just a few of many insights I’ve gained which, when applied to the fundamentals of resilience engineering and human performance, are informing what we, at Lewis, are calling our “new view of safety.”
- Traditional safety looks backward and analyzes incidents. Instead, let’s take a step back and think about all the crews working safely every tree, every span, every mile, every day, all year long. When we’re working incident-free 99% of the time, it makes more sense to study what we’re doing right (i.e., the presence of safety) and replicate that success.
- Traditional safety tends to focus on “control, correct, and react.” This might work well if you are making widgets on an assembly line, but it doesn’t work well at all with highly variable work like ours. With variable work, we need to focus on “learn, adapt, and act” to create safety.
- Andrew Hopkins tells a story about leadership performing a safety walkdown, focused on slips, trips, and falls on the Deepwater Horizon rig as the well was failing around them. It’s easy to get side-tracked and miss the big stuff. We are prioritizing understanding and managing risks with serious injury potential. This guides how we spend our time every day.
- A gap exists between policies, procedures, etc. “work as imagined” and the reality of “work as done.” When reviewing incidents, we gain more by asking what went well, what surprised us and what we learned that will help others. As we all continue to embrace learning, the positive momentum industry-wide will strengthen.
- Storytelling is key. Ask your crew leaders what stories they share with new employees. Especially in this industry, a well-told, cautionary tale is worth its weight in gold. People identify more with engaging stories than with fact-based information. I encourage all of you to gather those stories of serious injury potential close calls and share them widely; it could save lives.
- Crew members are not the problem, they are the problem solvers. I’m grateful to have joined a company with a culture of caring (also termed “a restorative, just culture” by Sidney Dekker). Dennis Brown, the Lewis COO, leads with his heart and many others follow. With that said, the remnants of blame can still be heard. Shifting the language away from what crews should have done or failed to do is the right way to encourage open and healthy dialogue—and build trust.
Over the past six months, I’ve been impressed with the safety experts across this industry, utilities and contractors. Their unparalleled technical knowledge is a major strength; however, that alone is not enough. Our leadership response to failure really matters. It is much more important to build an adaptable, resilient workforce that embraces variability and is enabled to make wise decisions than it is to punish our crew members for minor safety violations.
Our teams are actively creating safety day in and day out. Let’s celebrate that.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of the UAA Utility Arborist Newsline.
Lay has advised on human performance and operations risk management programs at organizations such as NASA, Siemens, Calpine and Los Alamos National Labs. Her contributions include the development of EU crisis management guidelines through the Darwin project, advising on the design of Human Performance coach training for the U.S. Department of Energy, and serving as Communications and Member Development Chairperson for the Resilience Engineering Association.