Our Daily Chance to Get Safety Right: The Pre-Task Tailgate

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My wife and I are headed to the Caribbean for some fun in the sun that will include our shared passion for scuba diving. As I grabbed my dive gear from the closet for an inspection the other day, I thumbed through my dive log and was immediately reminded of a trip that could've ended badly for me. Because of a safety briefing gone bad.

A few years ago I was on a trip to Cozumel, an area renowned for its coral reef system and unique 'drift diving'. With drift diving, you descend to the desired depth and simply let the flow of the current take you for a gentle ride down the reef, as the dive boat follows along on the surface to meet you at the end. I'd done this type of diving there safely many times over the years, even at night, with no close calls or issues. Until the last day of this trip.

Responsible dive operators do a pre-dive briefing on the boat before everyone jumps in. In essence, a pre-task 'tailgate'. They explain the depth, route, dive time, expected things to see, any current or cavern exposure, and the ascent procedure at the end, which includes a decompression safety stop at 15 feet for three minutes. This time, which was my 8th dive of the trip, and the 8th time I'd heard the briefing, I was near the stern of the idling boat and couldn't hear well. What I could hear sounded consistent with the last seven dives, so as he ended the briefing, I geared up, did a final equipment safety check, and lined up to jump in next to my dive buddy.

All went well until the safety stop at the end of the dive. Those of you who dive know the utter relaxation of hovering weightless in the water after an enjoyable dive. As our group was floating together to wait out the three minutes, I was on the outside edge, and pivoted 180 degrees from viewing the reef and the other divers to look out to the blue abyss of open ocean. Without any visual reference point, I had no idea the current was drawing me away from the reef and the group, or that I was getting sucked down. Until my ears started screaming with the pressure.

I went from 15 feet to 35 feet, to 45 feet in a matter of seconds. The feeling of panic welled in my chest as I tried to equalize the pressure in my ears and kicked reflexively to break the hold of the current. It wasn't enough, and I recall seeing 60 feet on my gauge and no bottom beneath me before I remembered to inflate my buoyancy vest to help break clear of the down welling. Fortunately, it worked.

When I surfaced, my dive buddy had no idea what happened as I swam over about 30 yards to meet the group. He hadn't noticed I had drifted away, as the group of 15 had 'schooled' together. Everyone was happy as they bobbed on the surface, excitedly sharing what they saw during the dive as they waited their turn to board the boat.

When we got aboard and sat down for the ride home, I told him what had happened.

'Oh, wow, didn't you hear him tell us to stay as close to the reef as possible at the end because of the weird current there?' he asked. I hadn't. I hadn't heard the most important part of the briefing. To make it worse, before getting in the water I hadn't asked my buddy what was said in the parts I couldn't hear. The divemaster hadn't confirmed understanding with any of us. I had relaxed at the end of the dive, thinking it was over, and turned my back on my dive buddy and my group. All mistakes that could've cost me my hearing, or worse. And the whole incident could've been averted had I heard and understood the exposure he described in the briefing.

Whenever we work with a client dedicated to improving safety, one of the first things we focus on is the preparation for and execution of pre-task risk assessments, or job safety briefings. The importance of getting this critical management responsibility right can't be overstated.

The content of a good job safety briefing may seem pretty obvious and intuitive—such as explaining the task, exposures, and safety procedures—and most companies know to cover these bases. On paper. But a largely ignored yet critical part of an effective briefing rests with the communication skill of the supervisor.

Supervisors need to ensure the team is attentive and able to hear the information, and can demonstrate that they understand. There is a set of learnable communication skills that they can use as part of delivering their briefings. One way to know that your crews have been briefed effectively is to 'audit by asking'. If you went to the shop floor or worksite right now and asked these questions, could your people answer:

  • What can get you hurt on this job? This tests if the crew is aware of exposures.
  • What are you doing/can you do to reduce the exposure and prevent injury? This checks if the crew understands their exposure mitigation options.
  • How would you pause work if needed? Checks to ensure pause work authority and method is understood and enabled.

In cases where there are multiple contractor or cross-departmental crews, understanding who is in charge is another point the briefing must cover. In cases of unusual or infrequent tasks, the crew should know who to go to for help on technical aspects, and if everyone there has done the job before.

Getting it right with pre-task tailgates and job safety briefs is a critical enabler of safety culture improvement. Because you have the chance to do these on a daily basis, it is a perfect opportunity to lead safety. Ensure you are practicing effective communication skills, and not just repeating technical information.

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