Next in Vegetation Management: Expanding Safety Maturity to “Resilient”

June 21, 2021
Learn about the emerging approaches for managing safety that expand organizational safety cultures to include resiliency.

In early 2019, after years of challenging ourselves and deliberating the best way to inspire and measure a culture of safety, the UAA Safety Committee published a detailed, self-assessment tool that identified three broad categories that help define a safety culture (i.e., leadership, quality control and safety compliance) along with a series of attributes that enable safety professionals to rate their company’s level of maturity.

This article presents a review of emerging approaches for managing safety that expand organizational safety cultures to include resiliency. In this article, we introduce the “adaptive age” of safety[1] which transcends all other approaches without discounting them but rather that builds upon them. The adaptive age embraces an alternative paradigm that safety is achieved by managers and workers a) adapting to changing circumstances and b) learning from successful performance (i.e., what went right versus what went wrong). The adaptive age requires a change in perspective from human variability as a liability that needs to be controlled to human variability as an asset to leverage in creating safety.

Throughout this article, we rely heavily on The Forge Works Map[2] which is freely available to the public and offers a blueprint to breaking through a safety performance plateau. In short, The Forge Works Map describes three approaches to working safely:

  1. Compliant: adhering to safety processes and practices to meet, for example, OSHA and regulatory requirements. This approach focuses on standardizing safety requirements and creates alignment between processes and requirements.
  2. Leading: promoting a positive safety culture through leadership behaviors and risk management. This approach creates alignment between people.
  3. Resilient: focusing on “how work is done” including anticipating potential operational scenarios. In this approach, safety is an emergent property of the organization and system (where safety management = work management). This approach creates alignment between safety and work. Given the strength of the UAA self-assessment tool on addressing compliance and leadership, in this article we turn our focus to resilience and applying the concepts of Resilience Engineering to the safety practices of utility vegetation management.

Q:  How do senior leaders talk about safety and how are their actions perceived by others?

A: In resilient organizations, leadership is focused on understanding and serving the needs of others. Crew members are recognized as the experts and partners in creating safe outcomes. In highly variable work environments like utility line clearance, the safety adage shifts from “all injuries are preventable” to “what can we learn about our close calls and injuries with serious injury potential to apply going forward?” We move from a focus on post-incident, root cause analysis and automatic suspensions to conducting learning teams, gathering stories, and treating team members as experts of the work. Accordingly, the conversations shift from asking “why did this happen?” and assigning blame. This was a gift – a lesson we can all learn from.

Q:  What triggers safety improvements and what is the focus of plans and actions?

A: When it comes to triggering safety improvements, investigations continue to identify opportunities; however, resilient organizations also explore successful work practices (a.k.a. work done right). In the high-risk environment of utility line clearance, where variability is omnipresent, it is not possible to completely control our work environment. As such, practices to manage emergent risks must be employed. At Lewis, targeted, human factors-based tools have been introduced over the past two years including a spotter skill development checklist and our Never Fall guide to prevent falls from heights. In addition, we are rotating our learning focus through key areas of Serious Injury Potential risk, co-designed by safety and operations, that we build upon week after week.

Q:  What is the quality of risk information generated in the organization and how is it used?

A: Traditional risk assessments are event-based, corrective action-oriented and have limited influence on safety strategy which typically stresses preventative measures. In resilient organizations, especially in vegetation management, surprise is expected and managing emergent risk is critical.

The focus is:

a) Noticing when multiple risks are stacking, or events have taken a turn for the worse.

b) Moving to different actions which may include pausing, bringing in diverse perspectives or a fresh set of eyes, asking questions, and challenging each other.

We study the “shape of surprise” after incidents and close calls to enable being more prepared to respond to unknown and unknowable risks.

Q:  How capable is your safety organization and what is the focus of their activities?

Today’s safety leaders continue to address operational discipline, error, and risk management, yet these activities are now bolstered by a heightened emphasis on building operational capacity. In vegetation management, this translates to safety professionals who have done the work and are able to teach others how to do the work. They spend time increasing the safety of the work versus doing “safety work.”

Safety leaders now partner with operations to facilitate learning related to surprises and challenges. They act as:

  • Scouts: seeking and sharing good practices between groups
  • Trailblazers: applying new view safety concepts to specific tasks through designing drills
  • Storytellers: crafting stories based on real events to build collective memory

Q:  What model of accident causation does your organization use to set its direction and effort towards managing operational work and safety?

A: In most industries, especially utility line clearance, incidents can occur even if all procedures are followed, and people do everything right. As such, resilient organizations have transitioned from root cause analysis and focusing on human error to studying variability with the understanding that we cannot control everything in our environment. The more variable the environment and the work, the more adaptive capacity matters.

Adaptive capacity, simply put, means having the flexibility and resources to change the way a person, team, or unit operates. Think about it as having options ready to manage emergent risks, supporting craftworkers in expanding their skill set, and using different tools and methodologies.

Leadership builds the ability to notice situations changing, or work not going as planned, then intentionally pause and replan. Effective replanning is a skill that includes gathering ideas and perspectives of others, and exploring different methods and equipment to perform work safely.

Q:  What is the role of middle and frontline managers in delivering operational and safety outcomes?

A: When it comes to frontline managers like General Forepersons and Supervisors, building trust with craftworkers and working together to learn and improve operations has moved to the forefront. Leaders are in the field, scouting the work and supporting workers. Signals of emergent risk are uncovered and discussed to co-develop safe and effective workplans. Cultures of blame have been replaced with learning cultures as blame fixes nothing and how leaders respond to failure matters and it matters a lot. Operations and the safety organization work hand in hand to create safety.

Q:  How are safety needs identified and resources allocated to reduce risk?

A: Most organizations today have considerable, highly professional resources invested in safety improvement. In a resilient organization, spare capacity is viewed as essential to enabling the ability to respond to unplanned situations. In this industry, this is often demonstrated with workers ready to respond to storm. However, in the day-to-day operations, it is more typically demonstrated by the ability to reallocate resources according to shifting priorities, replan the work based on new information, and readjust timelines, as necessary, all with the goal of risk management. This might show up as craftworkers being multiskilled. It’s more than more bodies; resilient teams want more “eyes” and “brains.”

Q:  What is the focus and effectiveness of safety and work management systems?

A: In this industry, OSHA, and other regulatory compliance have remained critical. However, for resilient organizations, management practices that audit for conformance have been transitioning to understanding and supporting the work as done. Compliance is important for a few key policies, but care is taken to not “over-proceduralize” or over-specify work processes. Individual groups are allowed the flexibility to innovate their own safe practices. There is a genuine curiosity to learn from the experiences of the frontline with the understanding that craftworkers hold the solution to many of our industry challenges.

Q:  How are safety goals balanced with other business objectives?

A: Goal conflict is often implicit and unrecognized. Resilient organizations recognize the need to reveal goal conflicts, such as safety versus production tradeoffs. Goal conflicts that might arise for line clearance include whether to postpone work due to high wind or whether to call for an outage instead of trimming near a line with compromised infrastructure. Leadership support and reinforcement for crews to consistently prioritize safety over production targets is critical.

Q:  What is the approach to developing capability, operational learning, and knowledge management?

A: The importance of leadership visits and formalized training cannot be downplayed; however, resilient organizations augment traditional technical knowledge with learning teams who seek to understand “normal” work and develop process improvements. At Lewis, we have implemented quick, in the field, After Action Reviews that enable us to reflect on how work went that day – positive or negative.

In addition, we actively learn through drills. Drills serve as weekly coaching opportunities that help our craftworkers to explore the physicality of their actions in safe work environments. They also help craftworkers in different positions to understand each other’s perspectives.

Q:  What is the role of frontline workers in contributing to work and safety outcomes?

A: Beyond technical competence and compliance, and beyond calling an “all stop” when an immediate safety risk is encountered, lies the frontline workers in resilient organizations who are codesigning safety on a job-by-job basis. Fully supported by management and leadership, they operate in a climate of psychological safety and know that they are 100% in charge of developing custom solutions to manage emergent risks, encouraged to reach out to others for help or another perspective, and/or welcome to step away from a tree that could put them at risk of being injured. Our collective roles, including those of the frontline workers, are to actively work to create the desired operational and safety outcomes for ourselves and our customers.

Importantly, in resilient vegetation management organizations, the role of groundspersons is elevated. The more they understand the challenges of a trimmer, the more likely they are to anticipate and offer help.

Q:  How does information flow through the organization and how coordinated are teams and activities?

A: In psychologically safe workplaces, employees share incidents, issues, insights, and ideas with each other without fear of retribution. Trust and transparency between safety and operations is highly valued and handled with care. Reported close calls are celebrated. Cross-division/cross-regional relationships are intentionally built. Learning teams include safety, operations, and corporate functions. Communication outside of hierarchal lines is encouraged; in other words, it is okay to call your boss’ boss.

Q:  How are decisions made in relation to the management of work and safety?

A: As discussed, vegetation management work environments are highly variable. As such, work management decisions can no longer be top-down; they must be made on-the-spot often by gathering team input and guidance. Leaders trust their work groups to make good decisions. Risk assessments include diverse perspectives and team members are encouraged to seek contradictory evidence. Leaders defer to the person with the most relevant, technical competence when solving tough problems.

  How are contractors engaged and managed?

A: In the world of utility vegetation management, contractors are typically qualified based on their safety performance. Utilities, from IOUs to coops and municipalities, perform scheduled audits and hold formal scorecard meetings to discuss any issues or challenges that arise. As vegetation management companies become more resilient, joint safety meetings are also shifting from report-outs to discussions of key learnings, emerging risks, and weak signals. Today’s contractors have greater flexibility and autonomy in their work delivery and are trusted to effectively manage their safety and human performance disciplines. Moreover, issues and challenges are collaboratively resolved as today’s utilities work in partnership with their contractors to ensure success.

Q:  What sources of information are used to monitor and influence work and safety performance?

A: Traditional safety focuses on lagging and leading indicators along with performance and compliance data. Today, performance assessment processes are shifting from monitoring and responding to learning and anticipating. In line clearance, craftworkers are asked, “where do you think our next incident is going to occur and why” to guide where to spend safety energy. Resilient organizations continue to collect real-time data including close calls, but the language has evolved. Storytelling has been adopted to make the risks real and memorable.

In addition, resilient organizations in highly variable environments now understand that zero-tolerance goals are unachievable and may suppress reporting thereby diminishing our ability to learn. At Lewis, instead of conducting root cause analysis on every incident, we are studying and learning from factors that indicate increased serious injury potential (SIP) risk. This allows us to focus our learning plan on what matters most: preventing serious injuries.

As utilities and their line clearance contractors continue to transition to a new view of safety by modeling the resilient, adaptive practices outlined in this article, we encourage open dialog. Join us as we create safety together.

[1] “The fifth age of safety: the adaptive age,” Borys, Else and Leggett, Journal of Health & Safety Research & Practice, Volume 1, Issue 1, October 2009.

[2] “The Forge Works blueprint for improving the safety of work,” The Forge Works,, 2020. 

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!