Researchers tell us there are two kinds of intelligences. First, there is IQ, but it doesn't automatically equal success. The second intelligence that seems equally important is social intelligence, which is the ability to read and understand situations in order to achieve desired results.

So, what does this have to do with safety? Everything. Electrical utilities often ensure that their field workforce has a high safety IQ, which means they have a keen understanding and knowledge of the safety rules and safe work practices. Yet this is only half of the equation for safety success. Utilities often don't dedicate time or resources to teaching and exploring hazard intelligence, which is the ability to read a job site, hazard or changing situation correctly and perform work injury and incident free.

In fact, four key hazard intelligences, which are teachable skills, might just be that add up to safety success. Here are ways that your company can help your linemen not only to grasp the value of safety, but also learn how to identify hazards and prevent injuries out in the field.

  1. Create safety awareness

    In 1995, I began an apprenticeship in distribution line work. The intensive and comprehensive program included both hands-on training and instruction in the classroom. We had to test our proficiency on a number of key tasks like chain saw usage, grounding of overhead lines and termination of underground cables.

    What we didn't learn in the hundreds of modules, however, was safety awareness. After all, is it okay to understand how to operate a chain saw properly if you can't identify other site hazards that could cause a significant injury? Safety awareness is one of the cornerstones of hazard intelligence. How well do you teach and evaluate this key skill?

  2. Focus on job planning

    A few years ago, as an area safety professional, I was called to a job site after an electrical contact. The worker who touched the 12,740-V line was very lucky; he had to go to the hospital but made a full recovery.

    What I learned was that the crew had energized a section of line before taking a break. During lunch, the line worker took a phone call about his daughter, who was having problems. Immediately after his break, he went up in the bucket, completely forgetting the line was energized just 30 minutes earlier. The worker's mind was not on his work. And the crew completely failed to plan.

    We teach our crews to review a job before it starts. The missing link, however, often occurs on the job site. Conditions can change quickly, yet work progresses. Crew leaders must conduct job planning sessions after each break during the day. In addition, if a change occurs, they must take the time to educate their field crews about the change and how to properly handle it.

  3. Encourage open communication

    This year, I coached my son's baseball team. One of the biggest challenges we had was getting the players to talk to each other. Instead of encouraging the pitcher or calling out the number of outs, they remained silent. The same is true on many job sites, where you can often hear crickets chirping. By not talking with one another, linemen are opening themselves up to the possibility of getting injured. Simply talking with one another and keeping the line of communication open on the job site is a key to safety success. It is also a hazard intelligence skill that must be taught to field crews everywhere.

  4. Remain uncomfortable

    Do you remember when you started driving? You probably drove under the speed limit with both hands firmly pressed on the wheel. Your radio was turned off, and you had your cell phone safely tucked in the backpack in the backseat. Because you were probably uncomfortable behind the wheel, your driving demanded your maximum attention.

Fast-forward two years, and you probably have a Big Gulp soda in one hand and your cell phone in the other. You may even drive faster than the speed limit with your radio blasting and your legs controlling the steering wheel. If you get too comfortable with driving, you may lose the fear of what can happen as a result of unsafe driving, and you can put yourself and your coworkers at risk for a vehicle accident.

One of the best practices to teach is to stay just a little uncomfortable — stay well within safety rules and safe work practices. Also, you must clearly understand the consequences of not doing so. In the end, our linemen need to know the rules. Nothing can replace a high safety IQ.


Matt Forck (matt@mattforcksafetyspeaker.com), a certified safety professional, worked as a meter reader and journeyman lineman, and was a member of his utility's safety staff. Today, as the president of K-Crof Industries, he leads safety conferences, seminars and keynote presentations on leadership, accountability and cultural change. For more information, visit www.thesafetysoul.org.