My First Big Intern Mistake & Embracing the Process of Things Going Wrong


Trail Crew is Stoked to be Netting!

First of all, a lot of things went right this week. My internship took me all over the place and included preparing camp gear for our next work trip, assembling new furniture for Forest Service housing, fixing and cleaning chainsaws, and even getting interviewed by a higher-up Forest Service employee from Anchorage for a video segment on Forest Service volunteers! My crew spent the majority of the first two days of the week at Sheridan Mountain Trail, a three-mile stretch through muskeg and temperate rainforest. We were netting, which entailed using a staple gun to attach old fishing nets to the trail’s wooden planks in order to increase traction and help prevent hikers from falling (especially important in Cordova, considering the heavy precipitation this area gets.) While the process was long and sometimes tedious, it was great to be outside in such a beautiful place. It was also definitely a much-needed service for the trail. I, for one, have slipped on wet trail boards many times in my first two months here alone!

The Finished Project- A Netted Set of Stairs on Sheridan Mountain Trail

However, this past week also included my first Big Intern Mistake. On Monday morning, the crew worked at the Forest Service compound for a few hours, cleaning, fixing, and preparing equipment for the week. My boss told me to label our brand new air compressor so that the rest of the Forest Service would know it belonged to the Trail Crew. I had been asked to label new equipment the week before with a scriber- an electric tool that carves equipment by drilling it ever so slightly. Assuming the procedure would be the same for the air compressor as well, I began to scribe “Trail Crew” in large letters on the side of it. About halfway through the word “Trail,” another crew member told me he didn’t think I should be doing it this way, but I assured him that my boss had instructed me to do so. A few minutes later, my boss’s supervisor (aka the Big Boss) came into the compound and rushed over to me, asking what I was doing. He informed me that the air compressor is very precisely made to function for only one specific tank size, and that changing this in any way- even just denting it with a rock- can render it useless. Needless to say, carving “Trail Crew” across the entire side of the air compressor made more than just a dent, and the expensive new air compressor was now ruined. What’s more is that scribing the air compressor was incredibly dangerous. If it had been filled with air, he said, “it may have exploded.” We were all extremely lucky that the air compressor hadn’t been filled. My supervisor filed the incident as a Near Miss in Forest Service records, and has even asked that I help explain and lead a discussion about what happened at the next Forest Service meeting for the entire Cordova District (gulp.)


Editor’s note: Near misses are essentially cheap lessons, an opportunity for SCA to learn from close calls without any of the actual consequences of an injury or illness. SCA’s Risk Management Department will follow up with the partner for a copy of their near-miss report, both to get the partner’s insights, and so we can create our own report as well. Risk Management Director Steve Smith followed up with Eliza to better understand what had occurred, and to synthesize some learning from the incident.<p>What sort of safety briefing did you receive before using the equipment? My boss gave me a brief orientation on how to use the equipment- basically the essentials of how to scribe, the importance of wearing protective equipment while doing so (safety glasses, gloves, etc.), and to write “Trail Crew” in big letters on either side. This is what he told me when I scribed plastic on a generator, which was my first scribing experience. The second time, he told me to “mark” the air compressor without any further instruction.<p>What are some key points you plan to share with the Cordova District in the aftermath of this near-miss? Some key points I’m going to share are how exactly the incident happened and the lessons the whole crew learned from it- the importance of paying attention to our surroundings, even early on Monday mornings; looking out for fellow crew members to make sure we all understand the directions we’ve been given; and, in particular, I’m gonna remind the District that a lot of what the SCA interns are learning is brand new to us, and also happens to be very dangerous. While the hazards of chainsaws and brushers, for example, were covered in orientation, the hazards of additional tools like the scribers were never explained. I’m going to ask that other District employees (especially on the Trail Crew) be extra cognizant of what we interns are doing, and ready and willing to give additional guidance.<p>What message would you like to send other interns and partners to help ensure that this kind of close call does not recur? I would tell other interns pretty much these same steps. Make sure they are comfortable and confident with any given task, especially a new and potentially dangerous one, before they complete it. This is especially crucial if they are doing it without supervision. I would also encourage other interns to ask a lot of questions, even if it makes them feel “stupid” or inexperienced. Again, the point of an internship is to learn by doing, and to make sure this learning process is done safely and effectively, they have to make sure their concerns are clarified.

Now, this incident wasn’t entirely my fault. As my supervisor reiterated later on, the fault landed on many of us- my boss, for not giving me clearer instructions; the crew member who told me I should stop and then let me continue, who should have asked a higher-up to make sure this was okay; and everyone who was working around me, who was much more experienced and knew that scribing the air compressor wasn’t a good idea. He really placed the responsibility on all of us as a group, and turned the Near Miss into a lesson for all of us to pay more attention to our surroundings (keep in mind that this incident happened early on a Monday morning, so we weren’t all quite as alert and awake as we probably should have been.) While I agree that the blame falls on everyone involved, I take my responsibility for the disaster that could have ensued very seriously, and it’s made me think a lot about the inevitability of mistakes as part of an internship- and as a part of trail work in general.<p>The archetype of the intern who screws up is a common one, and for obvious reasons. We’re in a new environment, doing entirely new work, while simultaneously taking on a lot of new responsibility. In fact, the very nature of an internship sets us up to make mistakes. Since the crux of our job is learning by doing, I would be surprised if anyone has completed an internship without making mistakes- and, if they’re anything like me, a few Big Mistakes. The great thing about mistakes is that after we recognize them for what they are, we’re a lot less likely to make them again (I, certainly, am going to be unbelievably careful around air compressors from now on!) We should absolutely avoid dangerous Near Misses like this one at all costs, but the longer my internship lasts, the more crucial I find it to embrace all of my screw-ups. They are, humbling, inherent elements of the design of an internship, and inevitably fantastic learning experiences.<p>Furthermore, I’ve realized that by the very nature of the work we do, we have to be constantly flexible and adapt to all the tweaks and “steps backward” that arise in our plans. That’s just how it goes with the Forest Service- things are bound to go wrong sometimes. Tools are broken. Miscalculations are made, and sometimes no matter how hard we work, we can’t complete a project as quickly or thoroughly as we’d like to. This pattern has occurred throughout the entire summer. For example, a significant portion of trail maintenance funding was cut to pay for firefighters in Colorado this season, which means we haven’t been able to afford helicopters to transport gear for our spikes (the term for our extended, eight-day work trips out on trails.) This means that next week we will have to haul all of our equipment- wall tents, tools, eight days worth of food, all of our personal gear, and more- out to our remote campsite ourselves. In addition, a bridge we spent our first few weeks building over a flooded easement trail is now eight inches underwater due to increased snowmelt from the heat wave Alaska has endured these past few weeks.

Crew Member Dan Standing On Our Bridge- It is Now Eight Inches Underwater

And even last week, a few crew members were asked (on very short notice) to cut some old growth spruce trees in order to build a bridge in an area further up a trail. The plan was to fell the trees, bark the logs, and have the rest of the crew join them to carry the logs to an open patch in the forest about 100 yards away, where a helicopter would drop a cable for the logs and transport them to where they needed to go. But when the rest of the crew arrived on the scene-after a forty-five minute drive and forty-five minute hike down the trail later- we could hardly budge the logs, let alone carry them safely. Remember, these are old growth spruce we’re talking about- it wasn’t an easy task. Luckily, by the next day, our crew leader was able to cut just enough off of the logs for us to move them, and the helicopter was able to transport the load successfully.<p>What’s the point of all of this? That trail work is a constantly fluctuating, delicate, inherently flawed process, and a big part of my internship has been learning to roll with the punches. With any SCA internship, the knowledge you gain concerns a lot more than just using new tools and hiking. My work ethic, moral code, and attitude have all developed significantly due to the obstacles I’ve had to face, and I’ve found that embracing all the obstacles and hiccups along the way is vital to truly get the most out of this experience.