I distinctly remember thinking “Holy Shit! That guy just died!!” I had just watched a mini excavator with a bucket attachment swing around and knock a laborer in the hard hat with full force. The laborer dropped faster than a safety guy who hears there are free donuts in the break room, his limp body hitting the ground with a hollow thud. Thankfully he came to as I hurried over to the scene.
Aside from the fact that (thankfully) the guy didn’t die, the most amazing thing about the incident was that the operator didn’t even notice until everyone around him came running over to “help.”
He and the laborer had been working together to excavate a small trench near an existing utility building. The operator would delicately break some soil loose and then wait just long enough for the laborer to remove the spoils with a shovel. They were doing their best not to strike any underground installations.
The two had worked in such perfect synchronization that hardly anyone took notice, let alone realized that their work was particularly dangerous. I was just as guilty as anyone in my complacency. Add to that the fact that the tiny little machine seemed innocuous and borderline cute, and we had a recipe for disaster. Any other heavy equipment on that site would not have even been allowed to be operated with an unprotected human nearby.
There are plenty of takeaways from that little episode. In hindsight, I reflected on a fatality that had occurred involving a slightly larger skid steer just a few months earlier. I kicked myself for not recognizing the danger that had been right in front of me. In speaking to the operator and laborer afterward, they both admitted that they had assumed the other knew what each man was doing and had failed to communicate. But no one recognized the risk.
It’s easy to pinpoint poor behaviors and blame the actions someone takes after an incident occurs. That’s why there are so many safety cops and “investigators” that hang their hats on doing just that. But, it becomes much harder to do when you have to look in the mirror and admit that you made the same error in judgment
The next time you walk through your site, wherever that might be, try this: Look for the “normal” practices that are waiting to smack someone in the head (figuratively or literally). You may find some workers who are taking unnecessary risks but get over it. Identify what those risks are and then figure out why they are taking them. You might be surprised when you figure out why you never noticed the potential for harm. It may well be because you underestimated the risk just like everyone else.