I don’t usually pander to the flavor of the day, but COVID-19 has permeated every aspect of social media lately. I’m hoping that I can help bring some pragmatism into the conversation. Not because I’m super smart or have knowledge most people lack, but specifically because I don’t. We’re all lacking full understanding of what’s going on. The media hype (regardless of what’s motivating it) isn’t helping matters.
First and foremost, people need to educate themselves on the risks associated with this outbreak. We should be seeking credible sources to help us make informed decisions about our response. Should we take it seriously? Of course. Should we buy two thousand rolls of toilet paper because the apocalypse is nigh? Sure, just give me some time to get some Charmin stocks purchased first…
Hysteria isn’t the answer fellow safety peeps. We should be the ones bringing rationale to the table. From a risk perspective, we need to remember the fundamentals (ahem… Hierarchy of Controls anyone?). Too many are casting aside their sensibilities because wearing an N95 makes people “feel” safe.
So let’s get educated.
My good friend Abby Ferri recently published a well-informed white paper on Corona virus and I think it’s a great place to start.
Monday was my first morning gym session after a couple months of sporadic workouts after work. Most of my inconsistency was due to my own lack of motivation but kicked into high gear when my workout partner, Kevin (first mentioned in THIS POST), transitioned to night shift. As a result, both of us went on a bit of a hiatus. That isn’t really that big of a deal for a couple of guys who’ve both lifted for over 20 years. But lack of discipline will catch up to anyone eventually.
Since neither of us are under the illusion that we’re still in our 20’s, we took things easy that morning. Not everyone in the gym is as wise (or old) as us, though. So, as we set up for some light squats I glanced over at the three guys in the rack next to us. They probably weighed 180 lbs combined, yet had their loaded bar with 405 lbs. I watched as the first of them got under the bar and unracked it. Then he staggered backward to a box behind him to risk his life for some box squats. I’m sure I was frowning at him the whole time (or as my wife says, using Resting A$$hole Face). My disapproval turned out to be warranted, though, because when he sat down on the box he COULD NOT stand up again. Nor could he figure out how to get his arms off the bar behind him in order to dump it without dislocating something. The trio hadn’t set their safety bars high enough either, so any attempt to fall forward or backward would have been disastrous.
For a few tense moments, he and his “bros” wrestled it back to the rack just before (I assume) his spine collapsed or he soiled himself. It was scary and cringe-worthy. But… he didn’t die.
Everyone needs an exit strategy
People in gyms are easy to pick on. I typically don’t because I realize very few aspire to be elite athletes (and I’m not a complete d!@#). Good on anyone who pursues better health and wellness. I can’t look down on that. But, I’ve observed that very few enter a gym with a for plan their exit. And, by exit, I don’t mean returning to your car after frolicking on the treadmill for 30 minutes. I mean figuring out what to do when things go wrong before they do. How will you dump that bar that outweighs you three times over? How will you drop the weights that are forcing your shoulder out of it’s socket?
Safety is uncannily similar. We’re often so focused on what has already gone wrong that we’re blinded to the failures of the future. Thus we fail to plan our exit. But that’s where the money is.
What part of your process could create real chaos?
How much of that chaos can you control before it gets out of hand?
I’ve told the story of my ill-fated hospital visit in 2016 before (see THIS POST if you missed it), so I won’t rehash all of it now. But the most memorable point of that 36-hour ordeal was laying in the ER bed shortly after being told I would be admitted to the hospital for Atrial Fibrillation (a heart condition). While waiting for my new room, a doctor walked in and asked me if I was ready for my prostate exam. Since I consider the heart and the prostate to be two distinctly different issues, I thought he was joking.
HE. WAS. NOT.
In the years since that event I’ve reflected quite a bit. It occurred to me somewhere along the way (ahem… IMMEDIATELY) that getting a prostate exam for a heart condition was a bit… misguided. I realize I’m not a doctor, but nothing in my WebMD searches has led me to the conclusion that I needed that particular “probe” at that moment in time.
You might not be making the same connection I am, and I fully understand that. I didn’t reach this conclusion through the use of any logic. It simply occurred to me while watching the gym bros that I never want to go to the hospital again and get an unexpected cavity search. So, being twisted as I am, I related all of that back to safety. That got me thinking about all the plans we make (or don’t make).
Reactions only get you so far
In the gym I plot out my activities. There’s a plan for execution, a mental thought process before executing, and a contingency for when things go wrong. Safety should be the same, yet too often we get stuck analyzing incident rates and trying to identify root causes for sprained ankles. Those things deserve some attention, but I would submit to you that your time is better spent planning work.
If we’re good at our jobs it seems to me that good planning, and a clear exit strategy should result in less need to analyze those rates we all seem to love.
My final point is this: Don’t give your safety program a prostate exam (figuratively speaking), when it has a heart issue. Practically speaking all that really means is focus on the real issues that are causing big problems (or have the potential to). Most likely those big problems aren’t bumps and scratches. Take care of those by all means, but look deeper.
What is out on your site that could kill someone today? If you don’t know, find out. Then do something about it.
A few years ago I was reading through some training slide decks for R&D (rip-off and duplicate) purposes. A HUGE, bold statement caught my eye and dropped my jaw. The statement was beyond asinine at first blush, but I wanted to test my opinion. So, I texted my friend Rich (who you may recall is much taller and MUCH older than I am). I saved the texts because I knew I would want to retell the story some day.
Me: Have you ever cut yourself shaving?
Rich: Of course.
Me: Did you CHOOSE to?
Rich: No, but I learned not to shave while drinking.
The texts went on for much longer and devolved into comments that I probably shouldn’t ever publish. I don’t need people knowing how twisted I am in real life. Suffice it to say that our friendship is partly predicated on an unspoken challenge to see who can say something so vile that the other can no longer reply. For the record, Rich is the only person who can beat me at that game.
The statement was… well… something
The slide that had caught my attention proudly (and boldly) read: If you believe all accidents are preventable, then you have to believe ALL accidents are a choice!
While I’m fully aware there are many who think things like that, I’m still amazed when people try to sell their non sequitur arguments to others as fact. The part that bothered me wasn’t the touting of the tired “all accidents are preventable” mantra (let me pause there while the pious among us stop reading). What bothered me was the second statement. I can’t wrap my head around any reason why it would be helpful to tell people that. It certainly won’t do anything to stop people from getting hurt. But it will offend those who have been.
No one goes to work to get hurt, right?
In my post titled The Dark Place I alluded to injuries I experienced while serving in the Air Force. That post described the resulting pain and my struggle with the medication. The first of those injuries began as a muscle strain and snowballed into nerve damage I still deal with daily. I can tell you categorically that I didn’t choose to injure myself. I absolutely made a mistake and put my body in a weak position, but not with the intent of causing harm. I did it because I thought my actions would accomplish the task without undue risk. I was wrong.
We are imperfect creatures who make decisions based on the information and experience we have at a any one moment in time. As I described in THIS POST, we don’t always have enough (or correct) information to avoid disaster. To label someone’s misfortune as a choice is not just offensive, it is outright dismissive of reality.
The razor is the key
When dealing with risk you have two basic choices: Remove it or Compensate for it. Removal is always preferable, but not always practical. So, we compensate. Compensation always comes with a chance of failure. When the failure results in injury, it doesn’t mean someone wanted to get hurt, it means their compensation wasn’t adequate. Our goal should be to learn that lesson and do better next time.
The only way to ensure you never cut yourself while shaving is to stop using a razor to shave. Switching to an electric may help, but as I see it, only growing a beard or electrolysis can guarantee no cuts. If you choose to grow a beard, get some Christmas lights to hang in it. ‘Tis the season:
I was recently invited to do a podcast with John Chapman on his Blue Collar Voices show. Check it out if you haven’t yet. It was a great conversation. John caught me off guard at one point, though, when he asked me if my experience and training made me constantly notice all of the hazards around me.
I had to think about my answer for a minute, because in some respects I suppose those of us in this field do notice more than the average person (not always though). But fixating on every hazard out there can easily lead to an existence of fear and irrationality. So what I told John is that I try to prioritize my observations and find the big things. That’s not to say we should ignore issues on our work sites, only that some deserve more attention than others.
Getting wrapped up in the trivial is what drives arbitrary rules, unjustified expenses, and encourages weakness in the name of preventing strains. It’s something I imagine every safety professional has tripped up on now and again. If for no other reason than genuinely trying to help someone.
Because safety is… emotional
How many times have you had a safety concern brought to your attention that just sounded scary? Or, even worse, how often has a fellow safety professional (maybe a superior) elevated a minor issue to a place of prominence when far greater issues exist? We should be prioritizing those issues instead. Sometimes that just means educating people on the differences between hazards and risks. When we don’t do a good job at that, workers roll their eyes at our “safety” programs.
And I can’t really blame them.
Craig strikes again!
A couple weeks ago I posted about a villainous construction superintendent who nearly created a riot in the site parking lot. He actually did a lot of things that put safety on perpetual rewind. Another of those episodes was his initiative to eliminate tripping.
At it’s core, the objective was actually a good one, but the correction was not commensurate with the risk. The issue was simple. Someone had stepped over (instead of ducking under) caution tape and tripped, resulting in a first aid injury. The fix was overkill. From that day forward, the mandate became that all temporary caution tape installations were to have a top and middle “rail,” and an entry gate.
Some would certainly agree that his “solution” solved the problem. I would argue that a little bit of personal responsibility and accountability would have done the same. What we ended up with was a whole lot of waste, extra work, and snide comments. I wonder what might have been missed while everyone was distracted by the fancy plastic barriers.
In late 2016 I had just passed all of the lab work required to obtain a new life insurance policy. My numbers were perfect and I was in great shape. I was less than a year past my unsatisfying attempt at competitive bodybuilding. And while I had given up on that dream, I hadn’t given up on the training and discipline of the craft.
On November 16th, I woke up early feeling queasy. It wasn’t terrible, but I wasn’t able to go back to sleep. So I went to work. By 9 AM my stomach was cramping so bad I knew something was wrong, so I told my boss I was heading to the doctor. On the way I called my wife and told her I thought I had a kidney stone (not that I know what that’s like, I still haven’t had one). She suggested that I go to an ER just in case I needed some kind of test a quick-care couldn’t offer.
The next 36 hours made me seriously question the cost of medical school
When I got to the ER, the triage nurse took my blood pressure and it was sky high. She set off all the alarms and immediately called in the doctor (by immediately, I mean an hour or so later). When he walked in I was curled into a ball trying to hold my insides in.
“Alright, Mr. Maldonado, lets get this prostate exam done,” he stretched a pair of exam gloves on as he completed that statement nonchalantly.
“What?” I rolled over and glared at him.
“Need to rule everything out,” he replied.
“Seriously? For stomach pain?” He didn’t flinch. “Are you joking?” He wasn’t…
This is a long story, so I’ll just hit the high notes
After that first unsuccessful “exam,” they hooked me up to an EKG (also not a freaking stomach test!). If you were in that room at the time, you would have thought the world was imploding. Apparently I was in what’s called Atrial Fibrillation (or AFib).
“We’re going to have to admit you, Mr. Maldonado,” my nurse explained. “If you’re in AFib longer than 24 hours, you’ll be at extreme risk for a stroke.”
I’ll skip the witty banter that occurred after that statement, but the long and short of it was that they could “shock” my heart back into normal rhythm. The only problem was that the ER (it was a standalone facility) didn’t have the equipment to do it.
So I got a super-fun $50k ride in an ambulance
When I arrived, the stomach cramps hadn’t subsided at all. The staff at the hospital hadn’t even gotten the message that I had come in for that. When I told my intake nurse, I was informed that they couldn’t give me anything for that pain because the cardiologist needed to evaluate my AFib first. As it turned out, I had a quite a while to ponder my situation and realized I had felt this way a handful of times before.
At 7 PM (almost twelve hours since I’d begun feeling off), I was finally visited by the first cardiologist. My wife and kids had arrived shortly before that and I was doing my best not to alarm the tiny humans. The pain was making it difficult, though, and I didn’t need to tell my wife out-loud that I was agitated. The doctor did not help. She had a thick Eastern-European accent and zero bedside manner.
“You’re a very big boy,” she said without introducing herself. “You’re not doing anything silly like creatine, are you?” I glared at her without answering that ridiculous question so she continued. “What’s wrong with you, then?”
I explained the whole sequence of events and then told her about my revelation that I had felt this way before.
“It’s happened a few times. I didn’t know what it was, but every time it’s happened I went to sleep and woke up the next morning feeling normal,” I explained.
“That’s not possible,” she dismissed my evaluation and then dismissed me, looking up at my wife. “Is there anything youwould like to tell me? Sometimes they forget.” The doctor pointed at me as she made that statement.
Umm… Nurse, that’s “normal,” isn’t it?
For the next seven hours I battled back and forth with the hospital staff about my condition. I insisted that it was going to go away on it’s own, they insisted that it wouldn’t. From there the argument transitioned into my endless requests to fix the AFib and their insistence that they needed to “run some tests first.”
Around 3 AM I finally got some medicine for the stomach pain and drifted off into sorta-sleep. Then I felt the snap. At 4 AM on the nose I was jolted awake by a new feeling. I was exhausted, still a bit queasy, but… better. I looked up at my heart monitor and I could no longer feel the palpitations. As I squinted through the medication haze I squeezed the call button. A few seconds later the nurse walked in.
“That’s normal, isn’t it?” I asked as she walked up to my bed. “I guess you can’t do your tests now.”
They never figured it out
I was stuck in that bed for another 24 hours before I was released. And only then because I threatened to sue them for malpractice if they didn’t let me out. It felt like prison. But I can understand why they didn’t want to let me out. No one likes not knowing.
There was no medical reason for my being there. None of the numerous tests (there was a CT and many other in addition to the prostate exam) showed anything abnormal. Other than the fact that I felt like I was dying, I was normal.
As much as I despised the staff who “treated” me (still do actually) over those 36 hours, I understand their frustration. It’s one shared by every safety professional out there.
We’re not the gods we wish we were
We can’t control everything because we don’t understand everything. That’s a sobering reality. And it’s especially hard to cope with when something bad happens. But it doesn’t mean we stop trying. It just means we have to accept that all risk cannot be removed. The best we can work toward is creating a system that reduces those risk’s impact on people rather than believing the false dogma that we somehow have the power to eliminate all accidents. Anyone who believes that is possible is lying to themselves or (even worse) to everyone else.
As I was thinking about that event yesterday, it occurred to me that it changed my whole perspective. Prior to that day life seemed like a foregone conclusion. Now I don’t see a future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making a veiled cry for help with that statement. I just realize that there’s no grantee I’ll grow old and get to see my kids experience life. No one else get’s that certainty either. With that realization, it becomes all the more important to manage the risks we deal with on a daily basis. When you do, though, just remember you’re human. You’re not going to manage (or even see) them all.
I’m just going to come right out say it. This subject straight pisses me off. When we go around talking about how awesome our companies are at safety because we’ve got low incident rates it equates to pissing on the grave of every worker who has died at our facilities. Thereis no correlation and the games we play to get “good” are just disgusting. Interpreting the grey areas in CFR 1904 to justify leaving it off your 300 log IS NOTsafety.
If you think I’m wrong, just do some research about the “excellent” injury rates and safety programs of giant companies that have experienced multiple deaths when offshore rigs explode, or have massive chemical releases/explosions that poison whole towns. The point is that anyone can boast good numbers. Very few can say they’ve provided their workers a workplace that won’t kill them.
Stop looking in the wrong places
If you’re willing to accept the idea that our main goal is to prevent death and catastrophic injury this should be an easy logical leap: Trying to reduce risk to the point where no one is injured is ridiculous. Life itself is a risk of injury and a guarantee of death (I’ve said that many times, but the safety zealots won’t buy it). The only reason for an organization to set a goal of “zero injuries” is to look good on paper, thus becoming more competitive and beefing up bonuses. It’s much less glamorous, and a much harder endeavor to focus on the things that kill.
So, we don’t. We nit-pick every bump and scrape that required more than an OTC dose of Advil. Then we chastise managers and supervisors because they can’t find any way to prevent those things from happening again. The sad part about it is that for all the time we waste trying to find the “root cause” for why Billy’s finger started hurting, we loose valuable time that could be devoted to making sure his partner doesn’t get crushed by the faulty machine he operates.
Here’s a newsflash. You can’t prevent every injury. Neither can those leaders who you accuse of not giving a shit about safety. If you want to eliminate risk in your facility, recommend shutting it down as the corrective action next time someone gets cut and needs stitches. That’s the only way to guarantee it never happens again.
It’s time to get off the pedestal
Safety professionals (leaders in general, actually) are prone to superiority complexes. We get so good at analyzing things after they happen that we start believing that knowledge can translate into real time. “If only our workers paid more attention.” Maybe if we spent more time working along side them, feeling what they feel, seeing what they see, and reacting to what they experience we’d have a better perspective. Until we realize that our view of the world is different and start trying to figure out how other people see it, workers will keep dying. We’ll be safe in our plush office chairs, though. So I guess in the end it doesn’t really matter.
It’s time to put some pragmatism into this profession. That’s exactly why I wrote A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit. If you’re reading this thinking I haven’t offered a meaningful solution to our problems, well… buy the book. I’m not going to give everything away for free. Either way, let’s work together and start making a difference in the lives of the workers we’re supposed to support. They might not thank you for it, but at least you’ll be able to sleep at night knowing you did something that mattered.
This topic has been stirring in the back of my head for weeks now. It came about when I was asked if a given organization spends enough on safety. I gave the question some serious thought before answering even though the answer immediately popped into my head.
My answer was that, in general, we spend too much on safety.
Oh, the heresy. Don’t try to stop me though…
Some of what I said was just me being provocative. But the core of the message is true, safety is too expensive. More specifically, organizations waste money on things that don’t really protect anyone and stand behind the moral high ground of safety when they do. Anything done in the name of safety is beyond questioning…
That might sound OK, especially if you’re big into OSHA compliance, but think of it this way: some of the worst things you can say are the things you don’t say.
For discussion sake, let’s pretend your company spends twenty thousand dollars to construct a giant cage around a piece of machinery. Installed under the auspices of worker protection. The machine does have quite a few moving parts and rotating hazards, but all of them have guards. Some are more effective than others.
Everyone in the facility knows there has never been so much as a paper cut associated with the machine. Now, I realize stating that just because something has never happened means it won’t ever is just as ridiculous as the government building a turtle fence. That’s not what I’m driving at. There’s certainly a chance the machine could cause an injury, it’s just not very likely. What is much more likely is that an overzealous OSHA inspector would pick that machine as an easy target for a violation and associated fine. Your workers hear that loud and clear even though you never even mentioned it.
While you were busy spending that $20k, they were busy whispering to themselves about all the unprotected fall hazards, poor housekeeping, and ergonomic hazards no one seems interested in fixing.
You Are Not On Fire Ricky Bobby!
I’ve talked about arbitrary rules before. There are no two ways about it, rules enacted without justification are harmful. They foster complacency and trivialize the importance of things that are actually important. Also, they often translate into an added cost that makes safety into a joke. I like to think that every time a high ‘n mighty safety guy makes a stupid rule, a unicorn loses its horn. The truth is that those rules cause more than just mythical damage, though.
In 2013, when the combustible dust brouhaha was just picking up steam and kicking up… well… dust, my company (rather my director) took the bait hook, line, and sinker. She enacted one of those magical safety rules and required all employees to wear Fire Retardant (FR) clothing. ALL EMPLOYEES. That included administrative personnel, managers, groundskeepers, you get the point. The rationale was that any employee could encounter a dust hazard and spontaneously combust in a flash fire.
Anyone with half a brain knew that our risk of flash fire was not commensurate with the huge financial burden that came with outfitting an entire company in FR clothing. The decision discredited every safety professional in the company. We had to echo a nonsensical directive that had no basis for its being.
The Safety Joke
You can argue that my assessment of the risk was grossly underestimated. You might even be right but think about it another way. Even if the risk was much higher, the fix should not have been PPE. Essentially we stated that our problems with combustible dust and associated flash fire were so extremely high and uncontrolled, that our only resort was to outfit people in protective clothing. Clothing that would not prevent injury, only (hopefully) prevent death.
It’s decisions like these that make a mockery of our profession. We make them to justify our jobs, or avoid fines, and then try to fool ourselves into thinking it’s for the people. That’s part of the reason people only want to participate when there’s something in it for them.
We’ve got to get better at “racking and stacking” our risks. I’ve put together a stupid simple method for doing this in my book, but you’ll have to wait until later in the year for that. Until then, let’s all try to be honest about what we do and why. If you make a decision that’s geared toward avoiding a fine, own it. If you tell people you’re doing something for their protection, make damn sure that’s the truth.
I mentioned my friend Rich in my last post. What I failed to mention is that he is like, super old. Not really, but he is 11 years older than me though. None of that has anything to do with this story except that it may be the reason we’re competitive with each other.
At one point in time, he and I were both Regional Managers at a nationwide company. Our regions were fairly close geographically, so Rich invited me to come along with him on a site assessment. It was the first time we’d met in person, so we were both sizing each other up (that didn’t take him long in my case, I’m really short).
Anyway, we ended up actually enjoying hanging out together. We spent the evening before the assessment drinking pitchers of Shock Top at a rundown Applebees. The first lesson I learned about Rich is that I cannot keep up with him when beer is concerned. Or walking for that matter…
When we left the bar to head back to our hotel Rich bounded in front using his normal size legs to take two steps for every one of mine. I finally ran out of steam and steadied myself on a lamp post as I yelled out.
“Dude! You hafssta slow down. Look at the size of your legs and looog at thfu ingSize of mine!” As I finished slurring that to him he busted up laughing and has never since missed an opportunity to remind me of that night.
Over the years we’ve worked on quite a few things together and come up with some pretty cool ideas. I may even share some of them here. One thing that made us become such good friends, has been our common belief that the safety profession is missing way too much pragmatism. That’s driven us to look for ways to get the message out that no one else uses.
Recently, Rich branched out and decided to start his own home-repair business. The other day he called and told me about an article he’d read. It was about how it’s better to prevent problems than fix mistakes. That’s a concept that goes beyond safety, but Rich told me it had resonated with him now that he was working for himself. He has no safety net if he gets hurt. Now, it isn’t just a slogan, safety really is his responsibility.
As long as both of us have worked in safety, getting people to realize that fact has always been a challenge. In contrast, I can remember sitting in a safety meeting when participants were asked to talk about when safety was at it’s best. The first answer was something along the lines of, “they used to give out prizes and rewards.”
That version of safety has always perplexed me. Why is it that people need an incentive to work safely, stay healthy, and go home to the lives they enjoy? It’s because we’ve de-humanized safety and made it a nuisance task. Worker’s don’t view it as something they should do to protect themselves, they view it as something they have to do before they can get to the real work.
The proverbial “they” in that worker’s response is a problem as well. An employer has a huge responsibility and certainly owes their employees a safe place to work. But so often we forget (and fail to mention) the worker has a responsibility to work safely within that environment. OSHA even calls that out in the General Duty Clause. It’s a stupid simple concept and one that doesn’t need to be over-complicated with games and gimmicks.
If someone doesn’t value their limbs staying attached to their bodies, no raffle for a low-end 32″ TV will change that. Instead of dangling useless carrots, we should invest time and energy in knowledge and empowerment. For me that means three things:
Give people the expectation that they must identify hazards and refuse to work in spite of them.
Do something about what your people identify. Any safety program that doesn’t is just lip service.
So I’m sure you’re wondering what the story at the beginning has to do with all of this. Rich was too. Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with risk. I just find it funny. Hopefully you did to. And if we ever go drinking together, just make sure you slow down for me and my short legs.
A few days ago a reader named Dillon asked my thoughts about ladders. It was a pretty open-ended question, but I had a spare minute or two so I typed up a response:
Off the top of my head? I think they’re taken for granted. People use them without looking them over (fixed and portable). Employees are not trained (or very minimally trained) on their use. No one audits the safety of their use. Another glaring issue is that employers are quick to add hazards rather than ensure that they are used appropriately. For example, wearing fall protection while using ladders is often stated as an OSHA “rule” when that is certainly not true. I think employers could utilize them better or even eliminate their need if they planned better.
Come to find out, his company sells equipment designed to eliminate the problem of falls from ladders. That’s something I can definitely get on board with, so I took a look. You’re probably very familiar with them: JLG LiftPod (Note: I didn’t receive any compensation for linking that, I just think it’s a great tool). Dillon’s response to my comments was pretty appropriate:
Time has proven nothing is working to solve the ladder injury problem, the only thing left to do is create equipment that removes the leading causes of falls.
That’s a great mentality to have about all aspects of safety management. It got me thinking about some of the ladder discussions I’ve had over the years. One, in particular, stands out because of how backward it was.
How Can We Be So Misguided?
I worked for a construction and engineering firm which had established some long term contracts performing maintenance at various plants. As such, they had created a division to manage those projects but had struggled to nail down the organization structure. This resulted in periodic personnel shuffles and management shakeups. Just before I moved on from that role, another of the shakeups occurred.
I found myself sitting on one of those conference calls we all dread. My new boss was an ex-accountant (I think) who had somehow become a division safety manager. He opened the call by recounting a terrifying (to him) experience he had just had on one of our sites. He had watched a technician climb a fixed ladder that lead to a roof hatch. The technician had struggled with the heavy hatch and the sight sent icy chills down our new leader’s spine. I know you’re assuming he thought “that man could have fallen!” If you did, you’d be dead wrong.
As he concluded his tale, he cleared his throat surveyed the group. “What can we do to make sure we don’t get fined by OSHA if someone falls off a ladder?” he asked.
My jaw dropped, but only long enough for a reflex response to blurt from my mouth. “Why wouldn’t we do everything in our power to make sure no one falls from a damn ladder in the first place?” I didn’t hide any of my disgust.
It really is a shame that we jump to legal ramifications before we even try to make plans to keep people safe. Simply put, if you have a known hazard that poses a risk to your employees, f^@%ing get rid of it! instead of wasting time trying to figure out how to talk yourself out of a fine.
Thanks to Dillon for his input on this post. I think it’s a subject worth talking about. One that goes much deeper than ladders, I might add. UPDATE: Check out the video reinactment of the story in this post. Hopefully you’ll laugh at it as much as I cringe when I see myself on camera.
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I got in a fight over $0.50 during my freshman year in High School. Were it to happen today it would certainly make it to Instagram. Maybe it would even go viral. Not because it was an epic fight, but because of how utterly stupid it was.
I had borrowed 50 cents from a classmate so I could buy a soda during lunch. After purchasing the drink, that classmate approached me and the group of kids I was standing with demanding I return his money. Obviously, I had no way to do that since I was drinking it. He wasn’t satisfied by that answer, however, and after a few escalating verbal exchanges things became physical. He grabbed the coke and pushed it into my face.
I should stop here and note that this kid was extremely large for his age. He weighed in at near 350 pounds compared to my tiny 120-pound frame. Aside from sheer size he had another extreme advantage over me. I had a broken leg. Stress fractured actually, but a crack is a crack.
In the preceding two or three weeks, I had actually been on crutches to support my wounded leg. It had come about due to excessive use during the cross country season, initially being diagnosed as shin splints. I had been running around on it for months until it finally decided to say no. That day just happened to be the regional finals race which we lost (I still beat three other runners as I limped to the finish line, please hold your applause).
Anyhoo… everyone at school knew about my leg. The giant who wanted his coke money back was no exception. After he doused me, I pushed him back. Then the “fight” broke out. He grabbed my right shoulder and swept my cracked left leg just below the fracture. Instinctively I dropped to the ground in an act of self-preservation.
It took a moment, but once I realized nothing bad had happened to my bum leg, my anger surged and drove me back to my feet. I tried to throw a punch but my foe’s baseball mitt of a hand clamped my shoulder again as his right leg swept my left. Harder this time. I dropped again. Still, nothing had happened.
The crowd was growing as I readied myself for a third attempt. I stood once more only to be met with the same offensive move. This time his tree trunk of a leg made contact with the crack in mine. Everyone heard the crunch as I crumbled to the ground with an extra joint in left my leg (not really, he only broke the larger tibia bone). It was a sickening sound that was only drowned out by the flood of searing pain that followed.
How Could Someone Be So Stupid?
I’ll come back to my broken leg in a bit, but let’s shift the conversation for a moment. Consider any industrial environment. Maybe even yours. Let’s say, for the sake of this conversation, that this site hires new employees regularly. Some are skilled and experienced tradespeople, others are right out of High School starting their first job. This site, just as all the others like it has hazards unique unto itself. As a matter of due diligence, you conduct orientation training with each of these new employees about those hazards.
One of those hazards presents itself in a task these new workers will have to do daily. They will have to connect piping and tubing which will carry highly caustic chemicals through a system and clean it. In orientation, you explained in detail that the chemicals inside are extremely dangerous. You explained that they need to wear chemical resistant PPE from head to toe. You even explained that tearing these systems apart requires detailed Lockout/Tagout procedures. All of your new employees nod along in agreement and graduate your training with honors.
A few days later one of those new employees is working on the production floor and has been given a bit of freedom. He hooks up the supply lines just as he was instructed and then initiates the process, filling the piping with a mixture of chemical and water. As the lines pressurize he notices a couple leaks and immediately turns off the pumps. He goes to the leaks and loosens a clamp or two so he can replace them and get a proper seal. In doing so the residual pressure in the system sprays him with the diluted solution. Thankfully he’s got on his protective bib overalls, so nothing a actually gets on his clothes. He then restarts the pumps.
Once again the leaks spring up. There are fewer this time, but he repeats the process. Again he’s sprayed, but nothing contacts his skin. Upon starting the pumps the third time, he notices there is only one remaining leak. Feeling as if he’s made great progress and is proving himself as a hard worker, he turns off the pumps, loosens the clamp and is DOUSED from head to toe due to the pressure. Caustic covers his face and gets into his eyes, immediately beginning to burn and threatening his future vision unless he’s provided with prompt medical care.
Perspective Isn’t Universal
Both of the stories I’ve told here are examples of people taking unnecessary risks. Some might consider them examples of unsafe, perhaps even stupid behavior. There’s really no point in arguing that. But we would be remiss if we ended the discussion there. Let’s take them one by one.
In my case, there was an adrenaline-filled fifteen-year-old who had run hundreds of miles on a broken leg and survived. Sure I had a hairline crack in my leg, but I could walk without pain and felt invincible. When I entered the fight my resolve was strengthened by the fact that my broken leg had been kicked not once, but twice by a human fence post. It hadn’t broken either time. Not only that, but I could see the other guy getting more and more nervous each time I stood up. I was fine… until I wasn’t.
In the case of our new worker, I have to imagine he had very similar feelings. The inherent dangers of the chemical may have crossed his mind (you told him after all). But with no practical experience dealing with the gravity of that hazard, he had no reason to believe he was in harm’s way. Then he “proved” to himself that nothing bad was going to happen. Twice.
Experience is a powerful teacher. But it can also be a catalyst for complacency for those using it to teach. Next time you’re in a position to convey your experience to someone else, be sure you don’t fall into the trap of believing that person will understand what you’re teaching in the same way you do. That person doesn’t have the same perspective as you. Keep that thought in the back of your mind. Then show them how to do the task, make them repeat it, and check their performance often.
My leg healed completely from my stupid incident, but there was no guarantee of that at the time. If you had the opportunity to keep someone from that type of ordeal, how successful do you think you’d be?
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