I still remember the first incident report I ever read. It went something like this:
The grader slid off the road and became stuck in the ditch. We backed up one of the pickup trucks to the grader and attached a chain from the truck to the grader and attempted to pull the grader out of the ditch with the truck. Once we pulled forward with the truck, the chain broke, snapped back and broke the rear window of the pickup truck. We inspected the initial damage and then we backed up the pickup truck closer to the grader and reattached the broken chain and tried again to pull the grader out of the ditch. The chain broke a second time. The broken chain was too short to attach between the pickup and grader so we called for a tow truck.
Luckily no one was injured, and with the proper equipment the grader was safely pulled out of the ditch. Like so many near misses, this one could have easily turned tragic (learn more in Near Misses: What They Are and Why You Should Report Them).
If It Hasn't Killed Me Yet...
We're all guilty of some level of believing in our own immortality simply because something hasn't killed us yet. In this case, despite the first close call for the crew that damaged the chain they were using and the window of the truck they were sitting in, they decided to give it a second try.
Look at the situation above again. The steel chain arguably could have been the right tool for the job, but righting a grader with a crew truck – a regular pickup truck – was questionable from the start.
When the steel chain broke and the force it was under whipsawed it towards the cab with enough force to shatter the rear window, they didn't say a small prayer for their luck and call for a tow truck with a professional trained in moving stranded equipment. Instead, they took the now-compromised chain – the one that clearly didn't hold the first time – and MacGyvered it up for another try.
This is the stuff that keeps safety professionals up at night.
The Muddy Motivation Behind Accidents
Another thing that keeps us up at night is not knowing the "why" of an incident, or at least not knowing the full explanation behind it. I’m not sure whether the crew was afraid to report that they drove the grader off the road to the superintendent or whether they were afraid it would set their productivity back and impact their pay. Maybe there was pride or some other psychological factors at work and they believed they could solve their own problem more quickly than a tow truck. Or maybe they had done it a dozen times before without a problem (learn more about Safety and Overconfidence).
I can tell you the superintendent couldn’t believe these guys would risk their personal wellbeing for something as simple as righting a grader. I remember him shaking his head, saying "I can’t believe they tried to tow the grader with a chain once, let alone twice! Especially after almost killing the driver. What were these guys thinking?" If someone had been hurt, the members of the crew would likely have been struggling with that question themselves.
Short-Term Versus Long-Term Considerations
At our core, all of us want to do a great job. We want to be seen as competent people who get things done.
That's a great attitude to have, but the problem is that it sometimes leads us to prioritize small, short-term gains over big, long-term pain. Statistics keep pouring in that show us workers are taking risks that simply aren't worth it – not in terms of company dollars and certainly not in terms of individual life and limb.
Doing a job safely compared to unsafely is a matter of minutes, at most. Is saving five minutes by not using chainsaw chaps going to make a big difference to the arborist's annual income? That small gain in productivity is hardly worth losing a leg and the lifelong financial and physical limitations that come with it (see Chainsaw Safety 101 for more advice on staying safe with that dangerous tool).
Got Lemons? Make Lemonade
The best thing to come out of the attempt to right a grader with a pick-up truck was the learning opportunity it created. As an organization, we were able to bring in all the crews and discuss proper protocols for towing.
More importantly, it was an opportunity for the crews to understand their health and safety was more important than a piece of equipment or a project delay. Everyone agreed that seeing someone injured for something so small and easily avoidable was awful. By extension, they could see how even risking that possibility was a terrible idea. The meeting improved the safety culture and we were all better for it.
Don't Die Over Minutes
We put our lives on the line all too often to save a few hours or hit some arbitrary deadline that, quite frankly, is not worth it.
People lose arms trying to tighten a screw without shutting down their equipment. They lose an eye because they didn't want to waste time running back to the truck for safety glasses. They lose their lives trying to adjust a chain when the load is instead of lowering it back down and lifting it back up again.
If there was one message I could send you to every safety meeting with, it would be not to die over a few minutes. Saving those few minutes at the expense of safety could well cost you the rest of your life.