I never planned to be a safety director. Rather, I think my path was chosen for me through a series of circumstances that all started when I was 16 years old and landed my first official job. Back then I was a lifeguard at a public pool in my South Dakota hometown, and I continued to lifeguard during the summers of my college years. At the pool where I worked, the safety orientation always included the tragic story of a little boy who had drowned many years ago when the pool was overcrowded one hot summer day. The story gave me and the other lifeguards I worked with a sense of the importance of our job – hearing it was an opportunity to remind ourselves that we were LIFE guards.
Fast-forward to today and I find myself still hearing stories about on-the-job tragedies, as I’m sure you have, too. We don’t want these tragedies to continue to happen, so what can we do?
I believe stories can shape our thinking and instill in us a stronger commitment to do better. Yet this commitment can only arise when stories are treated as learning opportunities. If they are merely told and then promptly forgotten about, the point is missed, the opportunity is gone, and we haven’t made our world any safer. We didn’t do anything with the story.
So, it is vital to ask this key question every time you hear a story about a job-related accident: Now that I know, what will I do? In answer to that question, you can take the following actions.
1. Engage in conversation. When you hear about an on-the-job tragedy, be prepared to have in-depth conversations about the actions that were taken and why certain decisions were made. It’s not about blaming people; it’s about trying to understand behavior and find a root cause.
2. Ask if this accident could have happened at one of your sites – and answer honestly. This is no time to hold anything back. Secrets don’t save lives.
3. If your answer is no, then why couldn’t the accident have happened at one of your sites? This step validates the safe work practices that have been established at your company and guide your work. It gives you a chance to verbally state safe conditions, rules and actions and to have all of your colleagues affirm them. In short, it’s an opportunity to acknowledge the strength of your safety culture.
4. If your answer is yes, the accident could have happened at one of your sites, then what can you do? This step will help you to find further value in sharing accident stories. Take time to determine the actions you need to take or the equipment you need to acquire to mitigate hazards and prevent injury. Making the choice to do these things is a proactive way to say, “This isn’t going to happen here.”
Move Safety Forward
When you ask the key question and take the related actions, you are choosing to guard people’s lives. You are moving safety forward. However, if you choose not to ask the question and take action, you may find yourself in a place you don’t want to be, as described in the story below.
A few years ago, an electrical cooperative shared a letter they found in their archives. Although it was written many years ago, it remains timeless. It’s one of those letters that when you get to the end, your heart hurts. It seems it was written with a purpose greater than the author might have imagined. The letter was meant to be shared.
“Heard through the vine you wanted a copy of our accident report of our fatality. It was our first serious accident we have ever had. It was one of my men and needless to say, it hurts us deeply.
“It was my first experience with a crisis like this and I hope it will be my last. I went with his wife to the clinic and stayed with her until the end.
“All I know is, if somehow all linemen could get that helpless feeling sitting with a man’s wife waiting, we wouldn’t need as many written safety rules. As in most accidents of this kind, he was not wearing his rubber gloves, and even if he were, if he were thinking at all, he should not have considered even touching anything.”
You don’t have to be working at a pool with a whistle around your neck to be a LIFE guard. Indeed, you are one every day as you work with your crew. Be willing to always ask the key question every time you hear a story and then take action. Through all of our actions, hopefully someday we will have no more tragic stories to tell.
About the Author: Lidia Dilley Jacobson is the director of safety and loss control for the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, which serves 50 rural electric cooperatives in Minnesota. She is an experienced safety professional with 34 years in the industries of explosives, nuclear and electricity, and her work has involved technical, compliance-based and managerial responsibilities. Jacobson’s last 14 years have been focused on the electrical industry.
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