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19 ingredients for utility avoidance

5 min read: In 2012 we produced the first report for CECA Scotland into Service Strikes and Utility Damages. A year later we published another report on a case study of Utility works in the centre of Glasgow. Both of these reports conclude that successful service avoidance is the result of a number of factors that are not ‘the norm’ of most construction and utility companies. By ‘norm’ I mean the operating standard, model or pattern from a group of individuals. Sociologists describe norms as informal understandings that govern individuals' behaviour in society.

The majority of Utility and Construction company’s procedures for service avoidance are to a very good standard, and, if followed, most service strikes would not happen. But, most company’s ‘social norm’ behaviours are those which result in the number of service strikes that we, as an industry are currently seeing.

"There is a disconnect between what the procedures, guidance and best practice say, and what currently happens on site."

Here are examples of the most prevalent, current social norms identified in the study. These social norms are supported by the environment created by the organisation and local site.

Current Social Norm behaviour:

  • Use of the term 'Service Avoidance'.

  • Avoiding or locating services at same time as completing excavation activity.

  • People attending a ½ day awareness course

  • Cat used in power and radio mode to mark-up possible service routes.

  • One person uses CAT.

  • A select number of attachments are supplied with Genny.

  • Number of service strikes are measured.

  • Supervisor supports all the above behaviours.

  • Manager supports supervisor behaviours.

By analysing a number of procedural requirements and safe digging guidance we identified a number of behaviours that could be adopted as new social norms to help improve the number of services avoided successfully during excavation works.

More effective behaviour:

  • Use of the term ‘Service Location’.

  • Locate and protect services as a separate activity.

  • People trained to fluency over 18 months.

  • Genny and CAT used to locate service locations as accurately as possible.

  • Two people execute service location.

  • All available attachments are supplied with Genny.

  • Number of services avoided are measured.

  • Supervisor supports all the above behaviours.

  • Manager supports supervisor behaviours.

But stating these alternative new behaviours in not enough to change the environment that supports the existing social norm. That takes time and effort but it is certainly possible. Some organisations have managed to create an environment that supports the preferred social norm. Here are some steps that they have taken to help achieve this.

  1. Train the person carrying out the task to a point of fluency. This step cannot be underestimated. If someone is trained to fluency, they are conditioned to react in a certain way when they are exposed to a certain set of conditions. This is the combination of knowledge and multiple practice. There really is no substitute for this.

  2. Get the person involved in the planning and methodology of the task. Research shows that when an individual is involved in the planning of a task, they are more likely to remember what is required of them. They should also be the experts if they have been trained to a point of fluency and can give advice in the best methods to employ.

  3. Provide enough time for the person to carry out the task. Time or the perception of time can influence how we do things. If we believe that we have little time to complete a task, we will be more likely to rush and cut corners.

  4. Provide the right materials and tools for the person, at the time they need them. Having the right materials and tools for the job at the time and place when and where you need them increases the chance that you will use them. Not having the right tool or materials at the time or even if they are back in the stores will increase the chances that you may use a slightly less suitable alternative.

  5. Observe the person carrying out the task and give them corrective or confirmation feedback. You may think that you have done the best job in explaining what is required. The person you have been explaining it to has acknowledged everything you have said. You have a picture in your mind as to what it looks like and you think they have the same. However, there is no way of knowing this unless you observe what they do, once they are actually attempting to complete the task. If it’s what you expected, and what was planned, great, tell them so, if it needs a slight correction, great, tell them so too!

  6. Ask other members of the team to observe each other and give each other feedback. Insist this happens, observe it happening and don’t just request it. You are trying to create an interdepended culture, one that will have peer support for the right behaviours and challenge behaviours that may cause risk. However, this isn’t natural, and it is slightly confrontational. If we are all left to our own devices we naturally avoid this. With a little encouragement however, we can practice this and build it in to our normal repertoire.

  7. If a certain part of the task is safety critical, make it separate from the other tasks. Some tasks are safety critical, i.e. checking to see if circuits are dead prior to working on them, or positively finding services by hand before machine dig. Make this a planned activity in itself rather than part of a bigger task. This will give it focus and attention and will help to support the desired behaviours if the above steps are carried out too.

  8. Regularly check to see if what you expected to happen, is happening. Now that you know that behaviours are situational you can’t trust the desired outcome to a chance briefing. The only way you will know if what you expected to happen is happening is if you regularly check to see if it is. This is also a chance to affirm to your team that they are doing everything you want them to do (or not).

In summary….

• Our current behaviours and social norms give us our current performance • You can’t change behaviour with just briefings, training or instruction. • More effective behaviours = Improved performance. • You can create the conditions/environment to support a new social norm. • But it takes effort, time and perseverance.

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