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A medium-voltage distribution switchgear line-up
Engineers need to know in detail the operating criteria for protective relays in medium-voltage distribution switchgear line-ups like this one.

Designing for Engineering Team Safety

Do we truly understand and manage the safety risks that our engineering teams are dealing with?

Do we truly understand and manage the safety risks that our engineering teams are dealing with?

In a field operating environment, the safety risks are both evident and actively managed. Open trenches, moving machinery, energized apparatus and conductors, stored energy mechanisms: all these introduce risks into the construction and operational environment. Good teams examine those hazards that can produce serious injury or death; great teams don’t wait for an incident to improve their awareness of hazards, but instead take near misses, good catches, and after-action reviews for the learning opportunities that they are.

“As engineers, we do a lot of work in the office that effects the safety of our crews,” says Natalie McCord, P.E., vice president, safety and health, American Electric Power (AEP). “It’s up to us to increase our awareness of the challenges they face in the field.”

Design teams usually operate in a more benign environment regarding direct safety risks. The usual assumption is that if we can make our way safely through traffic and up the stairs to our desk, the hard part is over. Until the commute home. The following is to challenge the usual assumption.

Our field and operations teams work in the environment imagined and specified by our design teams. Construction staff must build it. Teams maintain it. And when the weather or other events damage it, it must be rebuilt. And all those activities are highly influenced by the design team.

McCord, advises, “Take every opportunity to observe the work crews do in the field. Visit with those who operate and maintain the equipment and get input from them on the design. Understand what factors impact their ability to install, operate and maintain equipment safely.”

The field of Human Performance Improvement (HPI) (and generations of hard experience) tells us that we are fallible, prone to make errors while undertaking tasks simple and complex. The HPI predicts those occasions when errors are more likely, classifying them as error precursors. Among the strongest of error precursors are:

  • Time pressure
  • High workload
  • Imprecise communication, and
  • Distractions or interruptions

These error precursors are as likely to be operative in the design environment as they are in the field environment. And the consequences can be just as severe:

  • Time pressure encourages a team to skip a peer check that could have detected a latent error in a structural calculation, permitting a dangerous structure failure during construction.
  • Imprecise communication leads to an incorrect protective device setting, resulting in the delayed clearance of an arcing fault.
  • An interruption during order entry for switchgear leads to an incorrect device part number delivered and installed at a site.

Geothermal power plant relaying panel

When this geothermal power plant relaying panel is updated, new team members need to be briefed.

You may say — and I will not argue — that we have processes in place to detect those kinds of errors and correct them. And yet the statistics tell us that as good, as talented, and as dedicated as our design teams are, there remains room for improvement.

HPI tools offer an additional set of practices that teams and individuals can deploy to improve the opportunity to detect and correct errors before they escape to the field. For instance, a new team member might be invited to perform a specific design task to relieve a team under a tight schedule. The team lead could identify this situation as a clear error precursor: the new expert doesn’t have the benefit of the project history and details known to the rest of the team.

Specific HPI tools should be deployed to mitigate the risk that a new individual brings to the project, such as:

  • A systematic project task turnover should be used to brief the new member into data sources, standards documents, and completed work.
  • The new member should use a questioning attitude, not assuming this task is identical to others like it.
  • Independent verification of the completed work — throughout but emphasizing the points where this work intersects with other design items — prior to transmittal further improves the chances that latent errors will not be released.

Active use of HPI tools improves our field team safety in one vector by eliminating risks created by design errors. McCord says, “We have the opportunity to influence those around us with our actions and designs.” There is one more vector that we can improve upon. Just as software can be written for testability and products can be designed for manufacturability, so too can our utility environment be designed for safe constructability and maintainability. This can occur when the design team has the awareness and responsibility to hold safe construction and operation as an independent design objective. As leaders in our field, we hold a responsibility to create the awareness and set the expectation that, along with technical, economic, and schedule objectives, design for safe maintenance and operation is a worthwhile priority. Our field teams and their families will thank us for it.

Sidebar: A look at HPI Tools

One of the strengths of HPI tools is their versatility: Teams and individuals routinely think of new ways to employ them. Here are a few of the most useful (adapted from “Human Performance Improvement Pocket Guide,” by POWER Engineers, Inc.):

Conservative decision making: Anticipate the worst-case risks and effects that could result from an incorrect decision. Select solutions that meet needs within known constraints while minimizing undesirable consequences to the extent possible.

Flagging: Identifies components or equipment that is not to be touched or operated. Also used to draw attention to potential hazards or warn other workers of high-risk environments.

Peer-checking: Performed by a qualified peer after self-checking (in the case of design work product) or shoulder-to-shoulder with the primary performer (in the case of a field technical activity) with the purpose of checking the action or result and then requiring necessary corrections before proceeding to the next step.

Pre-job briefing: Improves team and individual awareness before arriving at or initiating a project or task. Helps understand beforehand the hazards, risks, constraints, work environment, mitigations, along with the activity scope, roles, and responsibilities.

Stop and collaborate: Used when there are uncertainties known before initiating a project or work-task step. Take the time to ask an expert, getting advice about the situation or process.

Turnover: The systematic transfer of information, tasks, and responsibilities between performers. A thorough and complete turnover provides time for the oncoming performers to establish an accurate mental model of the work, risks, and mitigations before accepting the transfer.

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