Nail Guns and Knees Don’t Mix

Be careful where you aim…

In the Spring of 2004 I was stationed at OSAN Air Base in the Republic of South Korea. My year tour there was rapidly coming to a close and it had been a whirlwind of events. There I learned some of the most profound lessons on leadership that have helped drive my career (check out THIS ONE too). This story is not one of them.

As the country began to warm up from a particularly harsh winter, my crew was assigned a special task. It was an activity that only came around once every four years or so. But the rarity of the mission wasn’t why we thought it was cool. The fact that we were given nail guns was.

Our job was to build special “blocking and bracing” in order to pack and load shipping containers full of munitions. It was a pretty mundane task, but it definitely beat spray painting tubes of concrete shaped like missiles (trainers). We probably saved a few brain cells during the painting hiatus as well.

You might actually hit it!

18-22 year olds who’s only job experience is building and maintaining high explosives tend to try to push boundaries. Our job wasn’t as high stress as many others, but it did require a bit of dark practicality. After all, we were making devices intended to transport our enemies to the deity of their choosing.

That being the case, we made something entertaining out of a task as mundane and vanilla as nailing 2x4s together. How? The same way any group of caffeine and nicotine fueled young males would: Fierce competition. We matched each other in heats and the winners had bragging rights.

The bouts were civil until someone realized that by holding down the trigger of our pneumatic nail guns you could “pop” the safety on the end of the gun and rapid-fire nails into your boards. Shortly after, one of the guys nailed his knee while it was bent at a 90 degree angle. His ambulance ride was less than comfortable.

The safety lesson is obvious

I’ll just keep that part simple. Train your people.

The less obvious aspect of this story is what it says about motivation and intention. Every one of that group of guys was driven to be the best. We weren’t messing around or playing games (even when we were competing). We were trying to accomplish our mission as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Out in the civilian world I see that mentality all the time as well. Most of the time the drive and innovation of our workers pays off and they get rewarded for their efforts. Sometimes, though, someone (metaphorically) shoots a nail into their knee. Often there’s no doubt that the action that triggered that consequence was foolish, or at the very least misguided.

But try to take a step back next time something like that does happen. Ask yourself if you would have condemned their actions had no negative consequence occurred. Better still, would you have even noticed there was something wrong?

As safety professionals we develop a heightened sense of what’s “wrong,” so I’m not going to assume there’s a bunch of idiots out there who can’t recognize when an activity is too risky. That’s not what I’m driving at. My point is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in labeling a behavior or action as unsafe once something undesired happens. It’s much harder to see through the eyes and perspective of the one who was working.

Try to dig deeper and find out why the person was motivated to work the way they did. That will require looking beyond the stupid action at the system they operated within.