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Safe By a Nose

Years ago I went to a horse-racing track with my co-worker Larry. Horse racing is his passion, so he spent hours choosing which horses he would wager on in the races that were on the slate that day. Larry taught me a lot about how the races work.

In a nutshell, the track establishes the line on each horse in a race by reviewing lineage and the relationship the horse has with its assigned jockey. They calculate how well each horse runs on a particular type of track, such as turf or dirt. They also consider track conditions. Does the horse run best in wet or dry conditions? Is the horse better at long distances or shorter ones? Additionally, they check the form of each horse in the race, including win-loss records, how the horse has interacted with other horses in the race and its record on different types of tracks.

The track handicappers then establish the odds that any given horse in the race will win. A heavy favorite may pay $1 for every dollar wagered, and a long shot may pay $20 or $30 for every dollar wagered.

Serious players don’t just rely on the track odds established by the handicappers. On my day at the track, Larry and I bought paddock passes and went to look at each horse that Larry was considering for a wager. He looked for excessive sweating and other signs that meant something to him. For my part, I saw the most beautiful black stallion I had ever seen in my life. His name was Prince Falmer. Larry said I shouldn’t bet on him because he was new and lacked form.

After visiting the paddock, we went to the windows to place our wagers. Larry pointed to a window and told me to say “two to win and two to place.” I gave the man my $20, got my two tickets and waited for my $16 in change. I finally realized I was at the $10 window and had wagered $20 on the No. 2 horse to win or place second. At the time, I was making $130 a week. If I lost, divorce was imminent.

I saw other people making wagers based on a horse’s “lucky” number, the color of the jockey’s silks or the horse with the cutest name. In the end, most people had a good time whether they were serious betters or not. The brief moment I spent watching the No. 2 horse run was absolutely thrilling. And while it was just entertainment, I was reminded of three vital safety principles during that day at the track.

1. People who bet their lives on hunches often lose.
While my co-worker Larry spent hours researching the bets he made and still lost a few hundred dollars every year, many people choose to bet on horses – and lots of other things – based simply on a hunch, which essentially is a belief or idea that is not based on facts or evidence.

Consider an incident I’m familiar with in which a lineman was electrocuted in a vault. There were two distribution circuits running through the vault, and he knew one was energized. While a crew member went to retrieve a testing device, the lineman, acting on a hunch, chose to cut into the insulation of one of the conductors. His hunch turned out to be dead wrong.

2. No matter how much the experts know, a sure thing doesn’t exist.
Intangibles abound in horse racing. Maybe the favorite is distracted or doesn’t feel like running that day. Maybe a horse with no form is about to start a long winning streak.

Intangibles abound in line work, too. When your crew performs storm repair work, you can’t casually determine that the conductors on the ground are de-energized or won’t become energized. Backfeed, customer generators, induction, switching errors and other intangibles make betting your life on those “dead” conductors a loser’s bet. No matter how certain you may be, no conductor can be considered dead until it has been isolated, tested dead and properly grounded using industry-approved methods and tools.

3. The return on betting your life is rarely worth it.
In our society, people who risk their lives for the greater good often are called heroes and held in high esteem. But what do we call people who risk their lives for something less notable, such as saving a few minutes of time or slightly lowering job costs? Here’s your chance to fill in the blank: If I risk my life to save a little time or make my work a bit easier, I am … stupid? Foolish? Crazy? Would you go into a casino and bet the deed to your house if the return on your wager was a plastic pink flamingo for the lawn?

The good news is that in the utility industry, you have a lot more people looking out for your best interests than you would if you were gambling at a casino. State and federal lawmakers, your company leadership, and your family and friends all want you to take the time to safely perform your work. So much is in your favor. And the best news is that you will be paid for taking the time to do the job right.

Hopefully the information included in this Tailgate Topic will help you make better, safer decisions while working. As for the rest of my horse-betting experience, my wife didn’t file for divorce after I lost that $20. And Prince Falmer? He won his race by several lengths.

About the Author: Kelly Sparrow, CUSP, is an independent consultant with Ambient Safety, a family-owned corporation. He previously worked as a utility safety engineer on the West Coast, as a safety manager in New York and as a safety director in South Carolina. He has many years of experience teaching utility and construction management teams about building a safety culture.

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