Personal Safety Training for Utilities Engineers working in the Community
Gas, Electricity or Other Utilities Engineers can encounter personal safety or conflict risk in the community while often engaged in Lone Working.
Utilities Engineers balance Customer Satisfaction with Conflict Risk
“Your job is to travel out into the community, enter a completely unknown person’s home and spend 2-3 hours there installing equipment. You’re a competent professional and you understand the technical elements of your job extremely well, even though you work with gas and electricity – either of which have a habit of hurting people when things go wrong! The funny thing is, probably the most unpredictable part of your job are the people you meet, in the homes you work in, in the communities you visit as part of your work.
You’re a utilities engineer working in gas, electricity, water or other utility provision. You’re probably a man, but an increasing number of engineers are women. You gravitated towards this kind of work because you like solving technical problems and have a technical lean-in, but the truth of the work is that you need to be good at reading people, delivering excellent customer service and anticipating and meeting people’s needs in regard to your area of expertise.
Who knew that you would have to go on a course to learn about personal safety and conflict management?”
Our Customers in this area of community safety and enforcement have included:
- OVO Energy
- The energy Saving Trust
- Kaluza Energy
Our clients have felt the benefit of our training across a number of domains.
The standout features of our training is that it is Practice-based and Performance-focussed – your teams will be up and moving in the training room, exploring scenarios and contexts which are relevant to their work and our training demands that they produce the words, behaviours and strategies in-vivo, in the classroom, so that they retain them better when they go back to their workplace.
You can see a video example on YouTube of one of these courses we ran for a Supported Accommodation team at The Salvation Army, here: https://youtu.be/_dFn7E07EH8
YOUR TRAINER: Dynamis is an Institute of Conflict Management-accredited Quality Award Centre #2201
Our trainers have a minimum of the following:
- BTEC Level 3 PTTLLS Preparing to Teach for Lifelong Learning education qualification
- BTEC Level 3 Advanced Self-Defence Instructor Qualification
- BTEC Level 3 Conflict Management Qualification
In addition, Gerard O’Dea is qualified:
- European Advisor for Vistelar Conflict Management “Verbal Defense and Influence”
- ICM Physical Skills Tutor Award at L4
- Certified Expert Witness (Bond Solon / Cardiff University)
- Functional Edge System European Director
- Author on Lone Working and Positive Handling (Amazon Link)
Utilities Engineer / Customer Service Staff Personal Safety Training
FIRST, WE UNDERSTAND THE ROLE
Following our ethos of working from a detailed Training Needs Analysis with every customer, which is a stringent requirement of our accreditation from the Institute of Conflict Management, we begin with a period of discovery with the client to tease out the detail of the engineers’ day-to-day work.
We stick a crowbar under the engineers’ daily task lists and lifted the lid, discovering a timeline of common tasks that they routinely carry out, in order to start putting shape to their work, so that we can then ask informed questions about when, where and how they might encounter personal safety or conflict risk.
We are particularly interested in something called Initial Contact, which is a core part of the Vistelar Conflict Management curriculum through which we see the world here at Dynamis. In prying open the details of the engineers’ initial contact with clients, we discover all kinds of habits and customary questions that they ask in order to make sure that visits proceed in the smoothest way possible.
Vistelar Master Trainer Gary Klugiewicz says:
“What if we spent more time focussing on Non-Escalation of incidents…wouldn’t it mean that we spent less time on De-Escalation later on?”
Veteran engineers on our courses speak about the various strategies they use to interact with the client, establishing a supportive environment for their visit to the person’s home. All of the engineers can quickly and clearly describe when asked, what the characteristics of a smooth visit would be.
- customers were well informed about the nature of the visit
- the work site itself provided no unreasonable surprises or difficulties
- customers were welcoming and engaged with the reason for the visit
- people (and animals) were respectful of the engineer’s need to work on his tasks
- customers were forgiving of issues outside the engineer’s control
In short, the visits where engineers ffeellt most secure and comfortable were also ones in which they felt that the customer had a respect for their efforts to provide a good service and supported the engineer to achieve his main tasks.
Our task during this module of the training is to have the engineers highlight the habitual things they could do to achieve an even higher percentage of smooth visits, through decisive, alert, pre-planned and practiced communications during the initial contacts.
The teams describe factors which would immediately signal to them what a difficult or uncomfortable customer experience would feel like for them.
- Customers who had as-yet unresolved bad experiences with the company
- Work environments which were unhygienic or presented extremely confined spaces
- Customers who were either over-scrutinising, untrusting or not engaged with the visit at all
- Customers who responded powerfully to (perhaps) predictable difficulties during the task
- In a small minority of cases, where customers become overtly aggressive or anti-social
A key focus of our discussions is the issue of intuition and its power, effectiveness and ultimate status as the most important risk-management tool at their disposal. Leveraging the Vistelar methodology again, we discuss a core skill called “Listening with all the senses” and underlining the 6th sense.
Far from being an ethereal concept, intuition is a powerful survival signal and is well established with popular-science writers calling it the “thin-slicing” effect, whereby we understand that experts acting on very little information (the thin slice) are often accurate in their judgements, even when made in the blink of an eye.
One very interesting exercise we go through is to ask the engineers what things they might sense in the first ten seconds of an interaction with the client, perhaps at the front door of their home, which would signal to them that they must terminate the visit immediately.
We certainly have some interesting stories! Most though are of the ‘usual’ variety, such as a very angry dog inside the property, barking at the engineer and jumping about. However some interesting issues arose when we discussed the problem of lone engineers, working in consumers’ homes, when the consumer might not be fully or properly clothed and/or this was intentional. In one case that we know of in the Utility sector, this became particularly risky for the engineer.
This decisive moment presents an interesting dilemma for the engineer or customer service representative in out experience, where they are ‘caught’ between their normal mode of being polite, respectful and cooperative with their customers, and on the other hand a mode which prioritises their personal safety and requires them to be very direct, maybe even blunt, and uncooperative with their clients in order to make their exit from a situation. This ability to ‘be rude’ in a situation in order to prioritise one’s safety comes easier to some people than others.
Companies these days provide numerous tracking, alerting and safety devices to their staff in order to address certain supervision, monitoring and assistance obligations that they have as the employer under health and safety law and regulations. We have always applauded the provision of these alerting devices and tracking technologies to staff.
It has to be said though, that even the best-designed software using the most up-to-date platforms and hardware still at some point in the process need a human user to:
- know how to set up their own personal device
- attend to the fact that it is set up properly and working
- test the system so that they have confidence it works
- know when it is appropriate to activate the device’s alert operationally
- have confidence in what happens when they activate the device
In our experience at Dynamis, we have yet to meet a team of people who can meet these criteria fully and with confidence. Many teams have patchy compliance with installing the ‘safety app’ on their phones. Even more teams find that they have little confidence in the service or system because they have had a few unintentional activations – the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome.
These devices are SO important though. Being able to summon help, to alert others to your need for assistance in any kind of crisis is imperative. In our sessions we specifically have the teams practice a number of drill evolutions where the alerting device is central to successful performance.
Vistelar master-trainer Gary Klugiewicz is again bulls-eye accurate with his insistence that we must:
“Practice Fire-Drills, not Fire-Talks”
Hope is not a strategy and when it comes to a critical moment where your last conscious act might be to summon help, we firmly believe that it is important for the teams to know that the alert device is set-up correctly, working as-expected and has a predictable response once activated in an emergency.
MANAGING DIFFICULT MOMENTS
Every now and then, predictably, an engineer’s visit takes an unexpected turn, for example:
- technical hitch delays the visit and upsets the customers’ schedule
- creates an unforeseen change in the customer’s circumstances (loss of an appliance)
- uncovers a need for significant investment by the customer (i.e. a gas leak)
- triggers unexpected emotionally disturbed behaviour from the customer
In these circumstances, the engineer is thrust, according to our paradigm, into one of two main modes. Either the engineer needs to engage in a careful process of listening to draw out the customer’s issues and allow them to present them through a haze of anger, frustration, anxiety and fear, or, the engineer needs to engage a persuasive process, during which they gently corral the customer into making a key decision about whether to proceed with one or other options before them.
Veteran engineers employ long-refined and perfected approaches to these scenarios. These engineers were as focussed on the customer being happy with the service they received, as they were that the customer received the service they asked for. There is a subtle difference! They way people are treated during an encounter with an organisation has more to do with their satisfaction scores than any technical competence the organisation displays. For example the perception of care a hospital gives its patients actually correlates better with patient satisfaction than whether or not people are being cured of their illnesses at that hospital!
For this reason again our Vistelar programming has at its core a focus on the procedural elements of the encounter. People who feel that they are being ‘properly dealt with’ find themselves with better perceptions of an organisation’s customer service, even if the company did have to switch off their gas, water or electricity! In this case it is so important that staff have a framework for both conceptualising the conflict that is happening and also have some habitual, pre-planned and practiced responses which they are confident with, so that this ‘procedural justice’ effect can happen.
Proposed Training Course Topics (9am to 4pm training day)
1: The context of Lone Worker Personal Safety in your Work Environment.
In this topic I would like to discuss some case studies about the nature of the risks lone workers face. Many of the more serious stories are about situations where people become badly injured or even killed when working alone in the community. These case studies and the narratives they provide hold within them deep lessons – generic and not industry-dependent – about how we need to operate as teams in order to reduce the risks.
2: Health and Safety Implications of Lone Working Personal Safety –Safe Systems Of Work
This topic builds upon the case studies as it outlines key items from the statute and regulations which help to clarify employee rights, employer obligations and the importance of risk assessment in the management of Lone Workers. The establishment of Safe Systems of Work points towards the potential need to track employees as they work and also the provision of Alerting systems for staff to use if situations begin to get difficult.
3: How to minimise the likelihood of an incident occurring in the community by detecting ‘Pre- Incident Indicators’
Information enhances safety for Lone Workers and so in this topic we will discuss with your team what kinds of information they need to gather in order to make the best possible prediction about the safety of their visit with the client. Gathered information feeds into the risk assessment process both in a formal sense and a more informal, intuitive sense. We will discuss with your teams the nature and importance of intuition as a guide.
4: How to recognise the cues prior to a person becoming very aggressive or violent
In this topic we will establish a timeline of frustration, aggression and outward violence coupled with the behavioural ‘tells’ or ‘cues’ which a person may give off as they travel along a trajectory of increasing levels of physiological arousal due to stress. Coupled with this we will discuss the different broad strategies available to your staff to deal with these phases of behaviour, with a ley focus on knowing when dialogue and communication are failing, triggering the decision to terminate the visit as safely and smartly as possible.
5: Appropriate ways of using body language and subtle barrier signals to improve safety
During a carefully-progressed series of moving exercises and drills, we will explore with your team the nonverbal signals which their clients might give off which would reveal an increased personal safety risk during a visit. We will also work on your team’s own body language signals and practice deploying body language which enhances safety. Inherent in these discussions is learning about proximity and distance issues in a confined space such as the customers’ home.
6: Verbal Defuse Strategies which de-escalate and reduce risk ofviolence.
Building on the non-verbals, movement and proximity issues from the previous topic, we will work with your teams on their self-self-generated conflict management scenarios. We will focus on non-escalation wherever possible, and then de-escalation where it becomes needed. Examples include where a client discloses a specific problem or issue to staff (prompting a process of empathy and listening to reach a safe resolution) OR the customer refuses to cooperate on an issue where there is no choice for your staff but to achieve their compliance (prompting the use of a procedure to gain the client’s collaboration on the issue at hand, where possible).
7: Time, Distance and Opportunity in relation to Exit/Escape route Proximity
Sometimes and despite staff’s best efforts at conflict resolution, situations can become potentially risky if there is a credible threat of violence. Now, building on elements laid down in previous topics, we can have your staff practice activating their lone worker safety device, WHILE deploying de-escalation strategies AND physically moving along their selected exit route. Several practical issues are covered in this topic, relating to movement speeds, confined spaces and the nature of a client’s home as a venue for conflict to happen within.
8: Understanding how to use Lone Worker Personal Safety Alert Devices most effectively.
This topic focusses on a discussion about the nature and functionality of the Lone Worker alerting devices available to your staff and the optimal time or situations in which they may be activated. Following the practice topics from earlier, we discuss with your staff the benefits, drawbacks and features of the device and some practicalities about the operational use of them, including where to keep them, power considerations, evidential value, and then we practice the activation in live scenarios.
9: Decision-making under pressure and Fear Management techniques
In real situations of high-risk we can expect that staff will suffer from the effects of survival-system activation – increased heart-rate, tachypsychia, reduced motor control and perceptual distortions which make decision-making and execution difficult. In this topic we will use a case-study to talk about the importance of a safety directive and how this guides the correct decision-making in difficult circumstances – the WIN mindset: Whats Important Now.
10 [optional topic] The rights, responsibilities and implications of using force to disengage or defend oneself.
Our experience over many years is that, when talking about risks involved in Lone Working, staff want to know “what to do if their risk-assessment and verbal deescalation fails”. In this topic we clarify in exceptional detail what the ‘rules’ for use of force are based on a detailed analysis of
the law. Staff gain clarity on when they can and can not use force and what criteria apply. This in turn reduces organisational vicarious liability in the event of poor decision-making, and fully completes the conflict management toolbox.
All of the above topics will be taught in the context of and with reference to the specific job tasks and experiences of your staff in their role as Ovo Engineers.
Personal Safety can be addressed in Phases
To use a competitive analogy, we believe organisations should always try to ‘win’ at personal safety in the early rounds, where risk awareness and avoidance strategies can be employed to keep staff safe and away from danger.
Failing that, staff need to be empowered and enabled to analyse a particular scenario for its conflict potential and to act appropriately to manage it in a professional manner, before it escalates and before they are at any further risk. That can be likened to winning in later rounds, where great focus and professionalism is needed to achieve a good result.
In our experience, your staff have become experts in dealing with their everyday contexts, because they develop knowledge about their clients needs, the environments they work within and the associated dangers better than anyone else.
They also develop crucial experience in dealing with angry, frustrated, and anxious customers or clients. For the most part, with experience comes an approach which those staff use to de- escalate and defuse situations successfully almost all of the time.
However, there are exceptional times when circumstances reach a level of risk and unpredictability when their experience and professionalism may be overwhelmed. For example, in our work in training groups of community-based staff from all around the country, it is perfectly normal for several of the group to have experienced the following:
- prevented from leaving a property by a customer demanding action on an issue.
- overt or indirect threats, while working alone with customers in their home.
- overwhelmed by a prolonged and highly aggressive outburst by a customer.
- threatened by another person in the customer’s house.
- approached or felt threatened when en-route to a customer visit.
Unfortunately, despite risk-reduction measures and the skills of staff in de-escalating and defusing conflict, there may be the extremely rare occasion when a team member has unknowingly walked into the presence of real danger.
This is a critical moment. We want staff to be enabled to realise the danger they may be in, and must then use all their resources – physical, psychological and emotional – to disengage from a high-risk scenario like this.
We design our lone worker personal safety training to be effective by:
Carefully listening to the contact-professionals who know their work and the risks within it,
and generating a series of common scenarios which can act as vehicles for new approaches
Running lone-working, client-interaction scenarios at high-fidelity with small groups of your
staff to highlight specific conflict flashpoints and solutions to commonly-arising issues
Injecting tried-and-trusted verbalisation skills, personal safety insights and recommended
habits into the scenarios for practice, often leveraging Real Life Case-Studies.
“This was a very engaging course which really helped me to understand the dynamics of difficult and potentially dangerous situations. Thank you!”
“Our trainer was a knowledgeable and likeable guy who mixed the theory based parts of the session with good real world stories and ways could apply the tactics in our day to day work/life“
“Competent trainer. Extremely knowledgeable. Teaching good practices. Thanks.“