By: Steven Powell

The Human Side of Safety

Lewis Director of Resilience and Reliability Learns as She Leads, and Expects the Unexpected

If you think vegetation management sounds like weeding your garden or tree trimming is simply landscaping at a slightly higher altitude, think again. Utility line clearance professionals make a living trimming and removing trees within inches of power lines, typically fifteen to seventy-plus feet off the ground. They are essential workers who show up 24/7, 365 days a year to help utilities restore power to homes and businesses after a storm. And they are first responders who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. How dangerous? Utility line clearance workers are in the same risk category as firefighters, police, and loggers.

The reasons are many. For starters, no two trees, locations, or set of working conditions are the same, creating infinite variability in the work they perform. Weather conditions can range from sub-zero to triple digit temperatures, from blizzards to Category 5 hurricanes, and from bright summer sunshine to the dark days of winter. The only thing certain about the weather is that it can change suddenly – and often does. Then there’s the wildlife, including snakes, stinging insects, and occasionally even gators.

It’s no wonder that at Lewis, the importance of safety is at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts and actions. Safety is a way of life, supported by a steadfast commitment by every employee from the CEO’s office to the front line. Leading the way is Beth Lay, Director of Resilience and Reliability. Her mission is to ensure Lewis teams manage serious injury potential risks by learning, designing, and applying traditional training and techniques along with cutting-edge human performance tools and practices that literally save lives.

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A Scientific Approach To Vegetation Management Safety

Throughout her career, Lay has taken a scientific approach to safety by looking beyond the documented processes and procedures to include insights about human behavior. “Human performance is based on the principles of cognitive science, focusing on human factors,” Lay explains. “It’s all about how people interact with their work.”

Beth Lay discusses vegetation management safety.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of North Carolina, she became an expert in cognitive science and resilience engineering, a field dedicated to building systems that anticipate and adapt to the potential for surprise. Lay has applied this knowledge throughout her 25-year career in leadership positions at Siemens, Calpine Corporation, and on special assignments supporting NASA and other organizations. At the U.S. Department of Energy, Lay is an expert advisor on expanding the DOE human performance manuals from detecting and responding to human errors to a system designed to address the variability inherent in complex work. This system focuses on understanding that people, with their ability to learn and adapt, are the reason great work gets done.

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A New View of Safety

Lay has a profound respect for the intricate and risky work that Lewis’ frontline workers do. “When you're doing such highly variable work, you have to manage safety differently,” Lay says. “Because it’s not the known risks that result in injuries and fatalities, it’s situations where we have the greatest uncertainty.”

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When you're doing such highly variable work, you have to manage safety differently.

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At Lewis, it’s called “new view safety,” and it’s a sea change from traditional safety standards patterned after those developed during the Industrial Revolution. “Those guidelines were invented for factory work where management could control the lighting, temperature, and many other aspects of the work environment. Our work at Lewis couldn’t be more different.”

Lay says learning is the key to keeping people safe, so her team focuses much of their time and energy on building a culture of continuous improvement. It’s about eliminating blame and empowering frontline workers, recognizing they’re not the problem but the solution. “It’s a way of managing safety where you free workers up from worrying about getting in trouble for making a mistake. Instead, we prepare them to learn from errors and close calls, enabling workers to adapt and handle a variety of situations better over time based on experience,” she explains. Sharing these learnings across the organization on weekly calls with over a hundred frontline leaders is a cornerstone of Lewis’ safety program. The input directly from the field often comes from situations where close calls were observed but incidents were avoided because workers used one of the human performance tools Lay has introduced.

Staying in touch with the frontline is key. “Our frontline workers are performing high risk, complex work, so we are constantly checking in with them. Are our safety and human performance initiatives working? Often, they are. And if not, we adjust. We try something different.”

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Challenging The Status Quo

Beth Lay Vegetation Management Safety The Human Side of Safety April 2023

Beth Lay ready to learn the ropes as part of Lewis rigging and roping training.

Doing something different in the vegetation management business means knowing there’s always room for improvement. “It's understanding that good is not good enough, preparing for the unexpected, and challenging the status quo,” Lay says. “We know just how dangerous this industry is. Rules are very important, but good rules are not enough to keep us safe. We’re never content with the status quo because we don't accept that it's okay to have a certain number of injuries or fatalities every year. We are out there blazing new trails in safety. We don’t always get it right, but we’re learning and striving to get better every day.”

Preparing for the unexpected also means being intentional about seeking diverse perspectives when making important decisions. “It might mean asking another crew to come over and take a look when you have a tough situation,” Lay says. “And most of all, having options ready. Maybe we can bring in another piece of equipment. Or we need another skill set—getting a climber might provide the best access to an area instead of a bucket. It's about matching variability with variability.”

Worker adaptability is key. If the wind shifts suddenly, it might mean pausing the work and allowing time for the wind to die down. It can also mean leaving the job and coming back the next day. Whatever the challenge, Lewis workers have the freedom to adapt to get the job done safely.

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New Frontiers, Similar Safety Challenges

Beth Lay Vegetation Management Safety The Human Side of Safety 02 April 2023

Beth Lay joining a morning tailgate with a Lewis crew.

The inherent unpredictability of vegetation management work appeals to Lay’s sense of adventure. Her passion for exploring the unknown has led her to visit more than 80 countries. When traveling, one of her favorite pastimes is spending the day with no plan, learning about new cultures, discovering what’s around the next corner.

This sense of adventure carries over into her work at Lewis and beyond, where Lay is using her expertise to enhance safety, from outer space to the deep blue sea. In 2014, following the near-death of an astronaut during a spacewalk, Lay was part of a NASA team focused on assessing and improving resilience for the spacewalk operations. “NASA asked us if we thought this could happen again. We said they should be asking a different question: how well will we respond the next time we meet the unexpected? Because surprises will happen in space.”

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We know just how dangerous this industry is. Rules are very important, but good rules are not enough to keep us safe.

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Lay has also consulted with Subsea 7, an under-water engineering, construction and services company that serves the offshore energy industry by installing and repairing infrastructures in the deepest seas, including the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Divers must have the stamina to work in extreme environments, and the strength and clarity of mind to deal with underwater emergencies. “These divers go down in the toughest conditions.” By immersing herself in safety and human performance challenges across a broad spectrum of industries, Lay brings a unique and valuable perspective to her job at Lewis.

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Listen, Learn and Stay Curious

Whether she’s enhancing worker safety in space, on land or at sea, Lay says she’s happiest when designing a new process or tool. Most days, this involves finding innovative approaches to help Lewis frontline workers stay safe and keep the power on for utility customers across more than half the country. To do this, she says it’s imperative to listen, learn and stay curious. “What are crews concerned about? What challenges are they facing today? Where do they need help? This is the way to make discoveries, find opportunities and improve performance. That’s how to create a culture centered on safety and human performance.”

We are out there blazing new trails in safety. We don’t always get it right, but we’re learning and striving to get better every day.