Turns out when your knee bends sideways, you squeak…

At least I do.

I was standing two steps below the top of the second of two flights of stairs in the house my wife and I shared in Vegas. She was standing at the top and we were talking about something super important which I have absolutely no recollection of now. I do remember holding myself steady with my left hand placed firmly on the handrail while looking up at her. Then I pivoted to my left and shifted all of my weight to my right leg, intending to turn around and descend the stairs.

My right knee did not agree with that course of action. Instead of holding me up as I pivoted, it decided to play “I’m not a knee, today I’m a noodle.” As it did so, my lower right leg kicked itself unnaturally toward my wife (sideways) and I squeaked. The next thing I remember was waking up several steps down on the middle landing in excruciating pain.

It was much worse than the pain I’d already endured for the past six months since my noodle-knee had been operated on. The first thought in my head as I came to was regret for wearing socks on carpet stairs. Too bad I was so careless, right?

Let’s pause there for a minute and enjoy some vintage safety training:

The video clip above was posted a Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) group I’m a part of on LinkedIn. I got a few chuckles from it, but it also reminded me how stuck in the past this profession is. If you don’t think the beliefs in the video are alive and well today, you’re fooling yourself.

To be fair, not all of it is complete nonsense. If you choose to invest 8 minutes and 26 seconds to watch it, you’ll see what I mean. Near the end the video talks about things like teaching lessons, training, communicating throughout the organization, and personal responsibility. Those are all things worth investing in. The premise, however, is where it gets… sticky. To twist the words of the head honcho in the clip, if you believe the “majority” of accidents are caused by carelessness, you’re just “plain not smart.”

Here’s my beef with the whole concept of calling someones actions carelessness (sometimes labeled “choice”): it’s a cop out people use after something has occurred. The obvious reason people make the choice (see what I did there?) to do it, is because its easier than coming up with a real solution.

Sure there are outliers, and genuinely stupid people who just don’t perform safely no matter what direction they’re given, but most of our workers posses enough skill, drive, and cognitive ability to accomplish their jobs satisfactorily. People run into problems when the system fails. Come follow me down the rabbit hole:

Part of any system in which a human is working involves that human. So, when an event occurs, it’s almost irrelevant to say their behavior is what caused the event. Seriously, we wouldn’t be talking about a near miss, an injury, or a death if a human wasn’t involved. And you can’t go back in time and make someone do something different than they did in a given moment. So, wouldn’t it make more sense to try and figure out what influenced them to behave in a certain way?

Of course not, that requires taking responsibility…

I’m just going to say it. It’s plain lazy to say that a person made a choice to behave in a way that got them injured. Not only that, but its disingenuous as that statement is often coupled with the mantra: No one wants to get hurt at work. Most people just don’t think like that. We don’t manage risk in real time. We react to it based on our experience and the environment we’re in. Sometimes reactions yield positive results, sometimes they don’t.

Now let’s get back to my knee. If that scenario happened in an industrial environment, someone would inevitably call out any of the several poor choices I made. Working back through time it might go something like this:

  • The employee failed to ensure that the stairs were clean and free from debris that could contribute to a slip/trip (We hadn’t vacuumed in a while and our cats had hair… so…).
  • The employee was not standing a safe location.
  • The employee was focused above himself, not paying attention to his surroundings.
  • The employee was wearing improper PPE (no socks on the stairwell).

The problem with that line of thinking is that none of those contributing factors were conscious choices I made. There was no sign (which I ignored) at the bottom of the stairwell with an info graphic stating “SOCKS SHALL NOT BE WORN ON STAIRS.” My wife and I didn’t have a sanitation schedule we neglected that dictated how often the stairs must be vacuumed. We didn’t have an SOP that explained where it was or was not safe to converse. You get my drift.

They were interactions…

You could easily argue that I’m playing with semantics here, but that’s not my point. I’m suggesting that we get practical. People don’t “choose” most of the things they do throughout the day in the same way one chooses what to order from a menu. We interact with our environments based on the stimuli around us (and within us to some degree). Call it a choice if you want. Chances are it’s a subconscious one.

So am I suggesting like George Potter that it’s all hopeless and we should just accept that when our number is up, it’s our turn for an accident? Hardly. Let’s go back to my knee one more time.

It’s tempting to label any of my behaviors listed above as careless. But that would be pretty presumptive thing to do. In fact, knowing my weakness, I remember gripping the handrail extra tight (because, you know, handrails prevent every fall…). I even remember the seconds before noodle-knee gave out that my intention was to grab the rail just as tightly with my other hand when I turned around to descend. I had done a risk assessment, it just wasn’t adequate. Because, right or wrong, most of my actions were commonplace habits when I was at home. I also didn’t know what I didn’t know (that my knee wasn’t strong enough).

Now I know what could happen in that scenario. I’m armed with tools that can help perform the task better in the future. Again, transporting the event to an industrial environment, I consider the following:

  • Stairs should be inspected for slip hazards before using them.
  • Footwear with proper grip must be worn.
  • Conversations should take place off of the stairs.
  • Special consideration should be given to my right knee that is less strong.
    • Better yet, I could work on strengthening it (which I’ve done over the years).

Unfortunately I learned those lessons the hard way, but we can always get better at identifying similar opportunities before something happens. I cover that concept in both of these linked posts: Nuts & Bolts No One Can Find: Part 1 and Nuts and Bolts No One Can Find: Part 2.

So why don’t we choose to do safety differently…

If I had planned my stair journey better, I may have avoided an injury (maybe not though, no one will ever know). But I certainly didn’t start that day off looking risk in the face and responding: “screw it, it won’t get me this time.” This is an argument I tend to get in more than I should (mostly because its a waste of breath) with stubborn Safety Practitioners, but it’s something we need to address. I’ll say it again: telling someone they made a choice to get injured is a cop out. It’s an excuse to place blame on the injured rather than dig deeper and figure out what influenced that person’s actions/reactions. Often that will mean that part of the system we own (training, procedures, machine configuration, maintenance, etc.) was faulty. The human may well have been, too. But like I said that’s irrelevant. You can’t engineer mistakes out of people.

Hi. I’m Jason. I’m the author of the book A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit from CRC Press. I’m excited to get to share it with you all and hope it will be as valuable a tool to you as it has been to me. There is no other safety book out there like it. That’s not me being arrogant and assuming you’ll love it. You might not. But at least we’ll be able to have a needed conversation about the change needed in the safety profession. It is available now! Email me at Jason@relentlesssafey.com

I’m always looking for new things to discuss as well. If you have an idea, leave it HERE and I’ll include it in an upcoming post.

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