The Tragedy of Complacency — Improving Safety with Gratitude

Complacency causes accidents. Although many other factors come into play in the prevention of accidents, few are simpler to overcome than the state of being complacent.

As an eager young electrical engineer working at an electric utility, I often travelled from lineroom to lineroom doing safety presentations. Most of the people in my audiences were old enough to be my parents and with experience that I could only dream of having. Yet it was my job to get them to see their work with a fresh perspective… so they could work more safely.

This task was quite intimidating. I would ask myself, “What can I teach these powerline technicians?” Most had worked on 345 kV systems and all of them worked on the 25-kV distribution system as part of their daily duties. Only a few years earlier my knowledge of 4/0 conductor consisted of its ampacity and impedance characteristics. I had never seen a piece of 4/0 wire in my studies so how was I to know anything about how heavy it was, what was involved in splicing it or what kind of radius is needed to bend it.

One of my most memorable training projects came very early in my career as I was doing the monthly safety meeting tour. I was accompanied by an experienced powerline technician (PLT), who at the time was the subject of ridicule as some of his fellow PLTs talked behind his back about an incident in which he had been involved.

We were a tag-team. I do not remember what I spoke about but I will not forget his talk. He began, “It was Friday afternoon. We had completed all our work and got back to the lineroom around 3 o’clock. Our foreman asks if we would wrap up one last small job before the weekend. A 120/240-volt, three-wire residential service needs resagging and it was just up the road. We say, ‘yes’ as it is only going to take 15 minutes to do the whole job.”

He went on to describe all the training he had received throughout his PLT career and how this last job of the week ranked among the most simple and least risky of anything a PLT does.

He said, “I positioned myself up in the bucket out by the service pole. Wearing only my leather gloves, I detached the service wires from the pole and began to tighten them to get more clearance over the road. I’ll just give this one good tug and it’ll be done.”

He paused and said, “It was only after I was in the middle of this final tug that I noticed the 69,000-volt transmission line. It was too late though. The 120/240-volt service made direct contact with the energized transmission line and a giant ball of fire erupted no more than 25 feet from me.”

He suffered no physical injury whatsoever and the damage was limited to the conductors (which basically vaporized) along with minor damage to the service entrance. He humbly credits being alive and being able to personally tell his story as a miracle. His lesson was simple…never be complacent.

It takes courage to tell a story like this. Who wants to admit to messing up the simplest of tasks? There were exceptions, but most of his fellow PLTs grew to respect him for having told his story. They realized that it could easily have been one of them in that same situation.

Over the years I have worked on countless safety sessions, but this one, like no other, remains impressed upon my mind. There are two key lessons from this incident.

The first is obvious. Never be complacent about the hazards involved in doing a task. For this reason industry has well established practices of tailboard discussions, risk analysis, hazard identification and clearly talking through the steps in a job procedure. Although the hazards may change from job to job, the process remains the same in addressing them.

The second lesson is not as obvious and has only come to me recently. And that is, do not be complacent about the good fortunes in your life. During these sessions, my colleague also spoke about his family and how important it was to him and the recreational activities that he enjoys and just how fortunate he was to have not lost them. During this part of the discussion the lineroom went silent. These precious gifts (spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, friends, health, freedom, leisure activities and so on) are easily seen for what they are in hindsight but are often taken for granted. Complacency can be avoided by being more consciously appreciative of our many blessings in life. Unlike task hazards, these do not change from job to job. We all have these gifts in one measure or another and they are incredible motivators, if not taken for granted.

You can translate this second learning into action with something as simple as a question on a Job Hazard Analysis form such as, “What is one reason in your life you want to complete this job safely?” Imagine the impact on safety if you overheard as part of a tailboard discussion, “I want to get this job done safely because I want to get home to watch my daughter in her dance competition tonight.”

Gratitude is a powerful motivator, so why not use it to help build a culture of safety?

Steve Foran
Steve Foran is an electrical engineer with an MBA that has been transformed into a Gratitude Engineer. Steve specializes in helping organizations overcome the attitudes of entitlement and complacency that somehow seem to creep into workplaces. Through his research, speaking, writing and consulting he helps organizations build healthier workplace cultures. You can find out more about Steve and his work at or you may contact him through LinkedIn: or Twitter @ForanSteve