Lineworkers and bighorn sheep share many similarities. Both spend lots of time at height, often in precarious positions. Both are particularly outfitted for their respective specialties – the sheep by nature, the lineworker by technology – to ascend to great height inaccessible to those lesser equipped. Both possess unique skills and emotional constitutions to function in an environment that would make most people dizzy.
The differences between bighorn sheep and lineworkers, though, are stark. The sheep makes spectacular runs and leaps from outcropping to outcropping. It does not do this because it is brave or fearless. Science tells us that the bighorn does not have the capability to understand the outcome of falling; it simply does not know what it is to fall.
The lineworker, on the other hand, does know he can fall – he just doesn't think he will. It's a fun comparison, and funny on several levels, but it reveals a conflict almost exclusive to the human brain that can be a problem in the workplace and at home.
Left and Right Brain Function
The comparison above is not really about lineworkers and bighorn sheep. It's really about the way the left and right hemispheres of the human brain work, or in some cases, don't work. In our highly developed brains, the left hemisphere processes things we know in sequential, analytical, logical and objective realms. The right hemisphere makes subjective observations, judging quality and value. The right brain might be described as processing information in more emotional terms, giving color and value to imagery.
But risk and reality are not just logic or just emotions, they are the point of the sword. You may dodge the sword many times, but the more often it swings in your direction, the more likely you are to be struck. This is why we have training, processes and procedures. If we can, we eliminate the need for the sword. If we can't get the work done without the sword, can we do it with a hammer instead? If we must have the sword, can we modify it, soften the edge or blunt the point? If we need the edge or the point, can we time the use of the sword so no one is in the line of fire? If we still can't reduce the threat, we train and protect workers in the vicinity of the sword to reduce the chance that someone will be injured if struck. This process of elimination, substitution, engineering, administration and PPE requires both left and right brain function. This is where teamwork in job site risk mitigation and training pays off.
The two sides of the brain are connected together and share in processing information, but most individuals process information with either left or right side dominance. This is the essence of personality and decision-making. These differences should be celebrated because they are what keep us from being a society of followers. We are more creative as a group because we approach decision-making from a variety of aspects driven by brain function. But as individuals – outside the influence and boundaries of our thinking co-workers – these differences can be hazardous to our health. This is especially so if the individual is a strong right-brained risk taker or a strong left-brained worker driven to leap from rock to rock to get to the top. This is where the balanced thinker or team excels. Dealing with job site risks as a group means getting the task done using a reasoned approach that entails analyzing the goals and risks within procedural guidelines to reach the appropriate approach to task safety.
The Importance of Community
This issue does not just apply to lineworkers and sheep; it's common throughout humanity. Some people simply don't equate hazards with threat. That is why the workplace community is important to the overall safety performance of the workforce. What we must do is train workers in safety and hazard analysis. We also can benefit by training employees about the value of teamwork and the differences in the way we think and how, when combined, they enhance our approach to better hazard analysis and mitigation.
When it comes to workplace safety, it cannot be assumed that everyone understands threats to their safety or that they will respond to a hazard in an appropriate way. Training, hazard awareness, mitigation, policies, procedures and PPE are all part of overcoming the limitations of the human condition. My grandfather always said that our human bodies aren't that tough so we have to be smarter than the tools we work with. Grandfather fought in the trenches of France and Germany in WWI, farmed his whole life with mules, tractors and plows, and died at age 94 with all his fingers and toes. My grandfather never heard the story of the bighorn sheep, but I think he would have understood the point. We are equipped with the most advanced brain found in any living creature – take advantage of it.
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