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Published: June, 2004; Vol 1, Num 1

 

When Smart People Do Stupid Things

By Scott Schneider

Every day we hear about people getting killed on construction sites (currently about four per day in the U.S.). Many more are seriously injured.

When you read the stories in the paper or the accident investigation reports, many times it makes you wonder, why were they doing what they were doing at the time of the injury or fatality? In hindsight, it seems as if they were taking unnecessary risks and deliberately placing their lives in danger.

But does that really make sense? Most people don't have a death wish. They don't really want to get killed or seriously hurt. So why would workers do these things?

One possibility is that they are careless.

For younger workers, they may not really understand the danger or risks.

For older workers, they may be habituated to the risks or underestimate them because of familiarity or overconfidence. If they work unsafely yet don't get hurt, they come to believe that it "won't happen to me," that because of their experience they can continue to work unsafely and not get hurt. But it only takes one time for a serious injury to happen, often just a few seconds. Something unanticipated or extraordinary may happen, and a finger is cut off, an eye blinded or a back injured.

Sometimes the risks may be hidden or difficult to judge. For example, years of exposure to high noise levels can result in hearing loss, a common problem for laborers. Yet how much is too much? When is it at a dangerous level? How long could exposure occur before it is harmful? Without measurements, it is hard to tell.

Members are sometimes under pressure to cut corners, and the risks may seem small. For example, workers may be asked to go into an unshored trench for a minor job because "it will only take a few minutes, and it would take hours to get a trench box in place." Yet, an unshored trench could collapse in less than a second. Often workers are asked to carry too much weight by themselves because it would take too long to get a cart or dolly to move it or find someone else to help. This is one reason back injuries are the number one injury in construction and the most costly.

Training can help but will not prevent all these incidents. It is necessary but not sufficient.

What can be done?

People are human and will always make mistakes or misjudge situations. We can reduce that through training and experience, but never eliminate it.

Other solutions include:

  • Constant efforts to correct all unsafe conditions - people can't work safely in an unsafe environment.
  • Adoption of engineering solutions so that people cannot get hurt or make mistakes. For instance, the new J-4 Flagger Station allows flaggers to do their job at a distance from on-coming traffic.
  • Making mistakes easily correctable and non-serious - when people do make mistakes, the error should be obvious and correctable before something bad happens. A ladder level is a good example.
  • Creating good habits through high expectations - good work practices are expected and part of the culture so that workers wouldn't think of doing something the wrong way (this is how hardhats and seat belts became a way of life - people should speak up when unsafe work occurs and not let it slide).
  • Making safety a priority - many people think safety will slow the job down, but companies that make safety a priority find that it increases productivity because jobs are better planned and safer.
  • Making sure older workers set a good example for younger ones - younger workers look up to and learn from more experienced ones; if the older workers are doing it the wrong way, so will the younger ones.
  • Making the risks and the consequences more real for workers - while it may be unlikely someone will get hurt, workers need a clear picture of what could happen if they do. What if they hurt their back and are out of work for weeks or months? How would that affect their family, income, ability to work? Real stories of workers who have been hurt and suffered can help others understand that it is not worth the risks to work unsafely.
  • Making safety easy - if it takes too long to work safely or it is too complicated or difficult, people will naturally try to cut corners.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA's Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]