Dr Don Ewart advocates the use of checklists when performing pest inspections, and with good reason.

Sometimes when I have to fly to look at a house in a country centre, I find myself in a plane a bit smaller than my wife’s safety rating (12 seat minimum). Often you can read the instruments and watch the pilot holding a big binder, going through page after page of pre-flight checks. Seems very old school in this electronic world. My first reaction to this was, ‘Have I scored a pilot who’s not trained on this plane?’ But after a few of these tiny plane flights the checking process becomes reassuring.

That sort of aviation checklist dates back to the 1930s. When Boeing produced a prototype bomber that was faster, carried five times more bombs and could go further that their target specifications required, everyone thought they were home free to win the big contract. In front of the assembled military brass, it was a bit of a shock when the plane took off, then stalled, crashed and burned. Every system on the plane was working as it should but eventually the wreck showed that the pilot had missed releasing a rudder lock. Pilot error.

In an age of simple planes, the new technology of this aircraft added a lot of tasks. Just to fly it, the pilot needed to manage four engines, retract landing gear, vary electric trim tabs as the airspeed changed, use hydraulics to adjust the blade pitch of the new constant-speed propellers and do quite a bit of other new stuff as well.

The surviving pilots produced ‘Check-and-Do’ lists that covered every step for taxiing, take off, flight and landing. This effectively stopped pilot error problems and the Boeing B17 Superfortress became a reliable vital part of the US WWII war effort, flying 1.8 million accident-free miles. When you are focussed on the big picture, a Check-and-Do list helps you not to miss any critical control points.

Checklists are becoming the norm for pest management. Best known are the Job Safety Analysis (JSA) and the Pesticide Application Record which, of course, you have for every single job that you do. These provide both a safety check mechanism and a reliable record should anything go wrong. The bigger the risks, the more potential value the checklist. With laboratory research, there’s usually tedious procedural checklists that step through and detail each task along the way so that proper records are kept that detail anything that might make a difference. Sometimes, it is a tiny detail that makes all the difference to the experiment’s outcome. On the other hand, when on-site finishing a termite inspection, I will run through a simple confirmation checklist to make sure that I haven’t forgotten to do something.

It is so easy on the job to get distracted by people and miss a little check that may have provided the critical evidence. Before adopting the checklist, a fortunately few times, I forgot to open the meter box and look for/photograph any treatment stickers. Oddly, I never had problems checking for notices in the subfloor, roof void and cupboard doors – which is a good reminder that everybody is different, but when you’re bouncing around in the tiny plane before you realise the mistake, it’s just too damn late.

Checklists can be universal, company policy or personal. Some are driven by rules such as Standards and Codes of Practice. Like the early pilots with their simple planes, the value of a checklist isn’t always obvious and some people see them just as pointless work. It is important that everybody is on board and uses the checklists in the proper manner, keeping accessible records. Insurers do love a checklist culture as it both reduces claims and provides good evidence for any defence. That’s another reason why the JSA and Pesticide Application Record of a job need to be complete. If you personalise a checklist, be sure your insurer approves. No compliance may equal no cover. Here’s a fragment of a checklist for trainee termite inspectors. This bit begins to cover tasks before leaving for the job.

A. Check the purpose

Is it prior to purchase, calendar check, post-treatment follow up, customer report or something else?

  1. Where exactly?
  2. Promised time?
  3. Who pays, and how and when?
  4. Briefed by whoever assigned the job?
  5. Who gives permission to enter/ work?
  6. Everybody’s contact details?
  7. Has the inspection be re- confirmed?

B. If prior to purchase

Is the documented agreement received from owner/owner’s agent and the customer to inspect in accordance with the Code of Practice?

Are online services used to:

  1. Check the location on a map?
  2. Check aerial photography?
  3. Look at agent’s listings and download a floor plan?

C. If any sort of return inspection

  1. Check of company records for site action and report history?
  2. Briefing from previously attending technicians?

Fairly new in that list is using online services to gather information about the property so that you have a better idea of the situation and needs before arriving. The history function in Google Earth typically has aerial views going back five or more years, which can be great for learning about trees that have been removed and any recent renovations/additions.

Page design for your checklists is important if you want them to work efficiently. The example sheet is too closed up and too wordy for daily use. It’s no mistake that pilots read through lots of pages. Proper use of whitespace on the page speeds reading and comprehension as paragraphs become instantly readable.

When producing a checklist let all your team have some input, and have they and others review it before it is put into use. That way everybody ‘owns’ a bit of it, and so are less likely to oppose the change. What seems obvious and clear to any one of us, may be read as just gobbledegook by others. Take your time and get it right. As with all processes, a review in the off-season can both lead to improvements and provide useful revision.

Dr Don Ewart

Dr Don Ewart is a termite scientist who undertakes consulting, contract research and teaches at NMIT. Dr Don chairs the termite Standard committee and is a co-author of the Code of Practice for Prior to Purchase Timber Pest Inspection. Dr Don can be found at Dr Don’s Termite Pages.

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