Clear communications that are well understood by all affected parties are critically important in safety. Some organizations use “echo protocol”, where communications are precisely repeated to ensure understanding. Echo protocol is a great safety technique that should be adopted by more organizations to reduce risks, especially when precise understanding is needed in critical tasks. To see and hear echo protocol in action, visit a Waffle House restaurant and notice how your server and the cook make sure your order is right. For many people, getting their food order right is of critical importance.
The airline industry also uses echo protocol religiously. When I have taken advantage of the opportunity to listen to pilot and air traffic controller conversations, I can fully appreciate the value in repeating instructions back and forth. When the air traffic controller issues instructions to the pilot, the pilot must precisely repeat the instruction back. A simple “gotcha” or “roger, wilco” will not do… the pilot must repeat the exact instructions (bonus points if you know what “wilco” means). The controller will continue to repeat the instructions until exact confirmation is received from the pilot. It is habit, an industry standard, it works, and I’m glad it does.
The utilities industry has similar echo protocol. Breakdown in task-critical communications can, and have, resulted in tragic outcomes. Poignant examples recounted by experienced and apprentice linemen drive home the dire consequences of having too much bravado (or too cool) to repeat instructions; or becoming complacent and comfortable with a long-time co-worker. It takes a little extra effort to confirm, and not assume.
In the eighth inning of the 5th game of the 2011 Baseball World Series, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had all kinds of communications problems with his bullpen, resulting in the wrong pitcher being ready, and the right pitcher not being ready. This fiasco was rife with misunderstood instructions, false assumptions, no double-checking, that resulted in a game-winning double made more likely by the wrong pitcher-batter match up.
Baseball is a game where mistakes in communication are made that we can live with. We can easily correct a smothered, but not double-covered, hash browns mistake for breakfast. But, when it comes to safety communications, there may not be room for errors – we may not be able to live with the consequences. Does your safety skill set include the willingness and ability to give and accept task-critical communications in a professional way that greatly reduces the likelihood of a mistake?