PJM Puts Human Performance Best Practices into Action

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This is a public service announcement: Do you use that resume mainstay, “Able to multitask”?

If so, stop!

Research in the field of human performance shows that multi-tasking is not the advantage it might seem to be, says Glen Boyle, manager, Operation Analysis & Compliance.

Each year, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation facilitates an annual conference on human performance.

The 2019 conference was March 26–28; PJM has attended the NERC conference since its beginning in 2012. Attendees from a myriad of industries attend the confab, which featured workshops and forums in a number of categories, such as building a culture, sustaining engagement and the effects of fatigue.

“The brain isn’t wired for it,” said Boyle, who heads up PJM’s Human Performance program. “It actually increases the time it takes to do a task, and every time you switch task to do something else, you increase the possibility of error.”

Learning the dangers of multitasking is one of the key messages that PJM and other utility industry organizations emphasize.

In the electric utility industry, human performance has a direct bearing on operational excellence, as it relates to operations and control room personnel.

Boyle emphasizes that while human performance shares some elements of traditional safety programs, it isn’t a safety program per se.

“Safety protects people from equipment. Human performance protects equipment from people,” he said.

Working to eliminate and lessen distractions is also part of PJM’s program as it looks to constantly improve performance. 

“Your attentional space is a finite thing,” said Boyle. “There are many distractions and interruptions competing for our attentional space, and our brain tends to focus on what it finds most interesting at the time. Sometimes, that’s not what you’re working on.”

PJM’s training on this topic includes a series of exercises on learning to eliminate distractions. These exercises train the brain to refocus when the mind starts to wander, when you want to check your email or text your spouse.

“Humans are more distracted than at any point in history; it’s a real issue,” Boyle said. “We have constant distractions; we’re in a sound bite culture. We’re distracting ourselves and our co-workers. It’s become an engrained, habitual behavior.”

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all”

The above quote has been attributed with both George S. Patton and Vince Lombardi. But it doesn’t matter who said it. The point stands: Fatigue is one of the biggest contributing factors to on-the-job mistakes.

“Fatigue is another error trap,” said Boyle. “If someone is fatigued, it’s almost like being intoxicated, as far as diminished decision-making ability. You’re just as impaired.”

Several years ago, fatigue and circadian rhythms were topics presented at the NERC conference on human performance. Circadian rhythms are the cues that help to set our internal clock – our body’s timekeepers, so to speak.

Glen Boyle, manager – Operation Analysis and Compliance

Fatigue studies have looked at influences such at workplace lighting, diet and exercise. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythms.

The short-term impacts of fatigue include impaired judgment in decision-making and problem-solving; slower reaction time; lapses in memory, recall, and attention; and difficulty concentrating, communicating and controlling emotions.

Awareness of fatigue is rising as more workplaces implement work-life balance programs, and studies explore the difficulties for shift workers across all industries – utilities, hospitals, transportation – to name a few. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (which cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics), almost 15 million Americans work full time on evening shift, night shift, rotating shifts or other employer-arranged, irregular schedules.

Boyle pointed out that fatigue is not just for shift workers, however. There are simple steps non-shift workers can take to avoid fatigue – such as avoiding heavy meals before bedtime and keeping electronic devices, such as cellphones, out of the bedroom.

“It happens to all of us from time to time – you’re up all night sick, or with a child who is sick. Where human performance training comes in is recognizing that you are more likely to make mistakes when you are fatigued.”