Six Keys To Safety (It’s Not What You Think)

I hardly ever know what’s in my pocket

My wife and I live about three hours from my parents. Once a month or so, we pack up the kids and the dog (the evil cat stays home so she can only pee on our stuff) and spend the weekend there. In the year or so we’ve been doing that we’ve never had a key to their house. Usually that isn’t a problem, but once or twice we’ve been stuck with no way to get in until they get home.

So, this weekend, my Dad found a spare key and handed it to me as I was packing up to head home. I took it and then retrieved my bundle of keys from the dresser in the spare room. For years I’ve prided myself on not carrying needless keys around, but as I was looking for the most appropriate place to put my keys (in order by size and type… I’m a little OCD), it occurred to me that I had more keys than I thought i did. There were more than a few that may never again open their intended door because I have NO IDEA what they’re for.

To be exact, there were six…

Big surprise, right? I’m sure many of you have just as many orphans in your pocket even as you read this. This “problem” got me thinking. I’m sure that at one point I was shown where and how to use each of the keys. I wouldn’t have put them in my pocket otherwise. It made me think about how we do the same thing with safety protocols.

Following conventional “safety guy” wisdom, I must be an idiot for not remembering. Some might even classify my lack of key usage a violation. If I pontificate long enough I can almost get there myself. One of those keys must go to my front door, I’m nearly positive of it. But I don’t ever use it. I open the garage door and enter my house through the laundry room. That is a textbook shortcut. It’s universally known that people who take shortcuts are conniving, decietful, liars who take safety for granted and just want the world to burn. They’re never honest, hard workers who are just trying to complete a task…

I don’t want to get too far off on a tangent. My point is that everyone forgets the reason and method from time to time. Sometimes we even make up a new way in the interest of getting the job done. Being shown the “right way” once will hardly make an impact. Even on smart people who are really good at working keys (or tools, equipment, or machinery for that matter).

So why, then, do we chastise and blame?

Last week, a reader sent me a description of an injury that occurred at a high voltage substation they were working on. I’m going to share it here (edited with their permission for anonymity reasons) and then circle back to the keys:

My crew was working at a main substation that was feeding another sub. I was in the main sub with a partner, and everyone else went to the other sub.  We had de-energized the main station, done a LOTO, and opened all breakers feeding the other sub. The second sub is about 3 miles away and fed with 12KV underground cable. Joe (my apprentice) and the others had opened all the breakers and Fuses at that sub and were preparing to clean and perform routine maintenance on the entire switchgear. 

Their process included touching off each phase of the 12KV feeder cable with a ground and then proceeding to wipe down, vacuum, and route the switches. Unfortunately no-one thought about the capacitive effect of high voltage cable and believed that momentarily “touching” them off would make it safe. After being given the ok to proceed, Joe entered the cubicle with a wiping rag in each hand. As he stepped in he grabbed A phase with his left hand to balance and simultaneously touched his right elbow to C phase. He received a severe phase to phase cable discharge across his body resulting in a burn to his left hand and right elbow. The right elbow was close to, if not, a 3rd degree burn.

The discharge came from the stored energy in approximately 5 to 6 miles of 12KV cable. My estimate is that the voltage was at least 4KV, possibly up to 10KV.

The lead engineer on the job immediately berated Joe for his “stupid” behavior, telling him stuff like “now you’re going to lose your job and get me fired too.  You broke protocol …..”  At that time another employee told the lead to shut up and helped tend to Joe and his burns. The lead asked Joe “if” he wanted to go to the hospital. By now he was intimidated and scared s*&$less. So he just sat down and said “I’ll be ok in a few minutes.” AND everyone there went along with it. 

I was at the primary sub and not aware of any of this. About 10 minutes later the lead came by our location and said that Joe had gotten “bit” and asked if we were working on the feeder cable.  We were not.  We never touched the feeder cables. 

I didn’t see the burns until about 30 hours later at dinner.  When I did I was incensed and told Joe “you need to go to the hospital.”  To my shame I did not drag him there and he didn’t go. Five days later I convinced him to go to the emergency room and get checked. His fiance took him to the ER and while in the waiting room he called our manager and safety person. Both of them made light of his concerns and told him “well do what you gotta do.” ”It’s just going to be a lot of drama and paper work for you and us.”

These comments enraged Joe and he left the ER without seeing a Doctor. 

11 days later I was finally able to convince Joe to go the ER and get checked, telling him that the incident was reported and the investigation, consequences, and paper work were going to happen whether he was seen by a doctor or not.  So he went to the ER and got an MRI and CT scan with a clean bill of health.  However, the doctor told him it could still cause him health problems in the future and that it was good to have it documented and on file.

-Anonymous Relentless Safety subscriber

Do you get mad when they do it wrong?

Obviously I can’t share where or who the reader who submitted this story is, but I did have the good fortune to speak to him about this on the phone. I’m knowledgeable when it comes to electrical safety, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t have made the same mistakes as Joe. And from what I’m told, Joe is a very smart guy. He’s been told about the dangers of capacitance, and likely even studied the formulas for calculating how long a high voltage cable needs to be grounded before it’s safe.

But that’s not likely why the engineer (we’ll call him Craig just like the bad guys in this other story) yelled and screamed expletives at him for “Effing up.” My guess is that the anger was an attempt at misdirection. It’s something we’ve all done when we find ourselves lacking or inadequate (especially in a leadership capacity). Craig yelled, screamed, cussed at Joe because he wanted the spotlight taken off of his inability to lead his team. I’ll never understand why people think getting loud would make people look in any other direction except theirs.

The story above is a common one. Though circumstances might change slightly, there’s an abundance of examples of outrage directed at a worker when they do something wrong. Unless that person is being willfully negligent or destructive, that outrage is almost always misplaced and unnecessary. Left unchecked, it will perpetuate problems in your organization.

So what do the keys have to do with it?

They’re reminders of our fallibility.

The next time you question why someone “would be so stupid” or “behave so unsafe,” reach down into your pocket, pull out your keys and see if you remember what they all do. If you do, great, you’re a better person than most. If not, look at the “idiot” in front of you and give them some grace (especially if they’re burnt or bleeding). You might get fired. The injured person might too. Emotion won’t change that.

A better response to any upset is to try and figure out how you got there. That doesn’t require getting angry at the people who are sitting next to you on the bus. Those people are not your problem, but they will likely help you find a solution.