Improving the competence and safety of Utilities Workers

Posted: Wednesday 27th March 2013

EU Sector Skills Council pilots Cable Avoidance Evaluation.

Every year there are more than 60,000 cable strikes in the UK utilities sector, many of which result in serious injury and death. Cable strikes can cost businesses millions of pounds in associated damages and compensation costs. Clearly, the number of reported cable strikes in the UK, as well as the many that we suspect go unreported, is far too high. Many companies have invested heavily in technical training for operators and supervisors in order to address the problem, yet accidents keep happening.

Cable-Avoidance Evaluation

Cognisco and Develop Training, one of the UK’s largest technical-skills training providers, have partnered to develop a new approach to training cable operators based on the latest behavioural training and assessment techniques - the ‘Cable-Avoidance Evaluation’.

The Cable-Avoidance Evaluation is designed to help companies improve the competence, knowledge and attitudes of operatives and supervisors, enabling them to uncover their knowledge gaps and determine the specific interventions needed to improve their competence, performance and safety. The questions were created by Cognisco’s occupational psychologists in partnership with Develop Training and mapped against the “desired” competencies of an ideal cable operative.

Operatives and supervisors are evaluated through this online assessment and asked in-depth multiple-response questions based on the real-life situations they face in their roles. Their knowledge, confidence and attitudes are tested in topics including pre-dig assessments, utility mapping, personal protective equipment, assessing existing damage, checking and using equipment, interpreting cables and pipe-work, and methods of excavating. By measuring a unique combination of an employee’s skills, knowledge and confidence the results reveal what individuals know, how they apply their knowledge in their roles and how confident they are in their decision-making.

Any skill gaps and potential risks are highlighted immediately. For example, people with low knowledge but high confidence could pose a risk to themselves or others. Similarly if a person has high knowledge but low confidence, how can a company be sure that he or she will be confident enough to make the right decision in a critical situation?

Having insight into how people are likely to perform and behave in their roles enables a company to act immediately and provide targeted interventions to improve competence levels. This knowledge enables companies to actively manage their risks and reduce them.

This unique approach also improves training and ensures companies avoid a “one size fits all” training model. The assessments results identify specific skill gaps and training needs which can be addressed with a tailored development programme.

Pilot study by EU Sector Skills Council

The European Union Sector Skills Council recently piloted the Cable-Avoidance Evaluation among four utilities companies which were its members. Cable operators and supervisors took the assessments and their knowledge, skills and confidence were measured across a series of subjects based on their job roles including pre-dig assessments, utility mapping and checking equipment.

The aim of the assessment was to determine individual competence levels and to spot any knowledge gaps that might compromise their health and safety and place their company at risk. In terms of the results, the best employees will have a very low risk score, which means they have high understanding with high confidence in each area. The employees that pose the highest risk are those with poor understanding, but high confidence.

The results of the pilot gave managers gain in-depth information about the knowledge, confidence and attitudes of their workers on each topic and their training needs. It enabled them also to recognise their star and poor performers, as well as those who place their organisation at risk – employees that need additional support or training or who might not be fit to practise.

The results not only looked at individual performance but how companies performed against each other and if there were any commonalities in the results. The study highlighted common knowledge gaps in certain areas within all four companies. These included the way operatives check and use equipment, their knowledge of utility mapping and their interpretation of cables and pipe-work. In all these areas the results revealed that employees were at medium to high risk. In the categories focused on checking equipment and utility mapping, employees had the highest gap between understanding and confidence, a combination that poses the highest risk for them to be injured or even killed.

If employees are not checking equipment, whether through complacency or overconfidence this is clearly a risk. Equally, if they do not understand utility mapping and interpretation of cables and pipe-work, they are more likely to make an error or strike a cable.

The pilot study was important because it not only revealed some major knowledge gaps in crucial areas for operatives within four large companies, but also indicated that these gaps could be representative across the utilities industry. Interestingly, the results revealed similar patterns in terms of operative understanding and confidence.


The Cable Avoidance Evaluation enables utilities companies to adopt a new approach to training and assessment. It enables them to understand who their most competent workers are and those that might place themselves or their company at risk through lack of knowledge or confidence. Once identified, these employees can be can be given the essential interventions needed, or even taken off the job until they have improved their competence levels and can demonstrate they are fit to practise.

The assessment will help companies to understand the specific training and development needs of cable operators in order to raise individual and industry-wide safety standards and change and improve employee behaviour. In time, this may lead to a reduction in cable strikes – something the industry desperately needs and wants.

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