MANAGING SAFETY PERFORMANCE NEWS

Earbud Nation

“What, Me Worry?” 
 
     ~Alfred E. Neuman
 
Oblivious: not aware of, or not concerned about what is going on around someone
 

Sooner or later, something like this was bound to happen:

On a highway construction site, 34-year-old Marvin Franklin was run over by a reversing dump truck. The medical examiner’s report showed his headphones and phone were found near his body, but it was never confirmed that he had the headphones in his ears as he was walking through the site.  

~News 6 Orlando

Earbuds. They’re everywhere. Look around: you’ll see people wearing them at the store, on the sidewalk, in the coffee shop, on the train, in the airline terminal, in the gym, on the practice tee, at the house.

And sometimes, on the job. I’m wearing mine as I’m writing this edition of the news. 

We’ve become Earbud Nation.

As to what would cause that particular change in culture, the benefits are obvious. We get to listen to what we want to listen to. We get to tune out everything – and everyone – we don’t want to listen to.  

What’s not to like about that? 

Getting to live in our own little world may be wonderful, but, like everything in life, it does come at a cost: we’re not aware of or concerned about what is going on around us. 

In a word, oblivious.

Sensing Hazards

From the moment we drew our first breath, we’ve been fully engaged in the practice of recognizing hazards, the things that can hurt us. It’s the instinct for survival, something we’re all hard wired to do. If it were otherwise, most of us wouldn’t even be here.

Yes, you know that. But, the next time you are inclined to diagnose an injury as a case where someone failed to “recognize the hazard” do not forget what you know. Likely that knowledge will cause you to look elsewhere for the root cause of the problem.

That said, teaching people about hazards has an important place in the workplace: what you don’t know can hurt you. Knowing about a hazard is one thing; taking a hazard seriously is the thing that matters most to safety.  

That’s a perfect illustration of what’s known in logic as the difference between a necessary condition and sufficient condition.  Knowledge is necessary – but not sufficient. 

In real time, recognizing hazards is principally a sensory process. We use our senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound – to detect the presence of things with the potential to harm us. The sound of a distant rumble from the sky tells us lightening is in the area. The smell of smoke alerts us that something’s burning. We see a snake and jump. The milk tastes spoiled. Your hand gets close to a hot stove and instinctively pulls away. 

Can a case be made for a “sixth sense” to detect hazards? I’m a believer, and can cite examples. You may be, as well. If you wanted to add using “common sense” to the list, I would not object.

Approach a rail crossing, and it would seem to make good sense to stop, look and listen: the hazard of an oncoming train is not that difficult to recognize. Sadly, there are plenty of cases where that does not happen. So, many railroad crossings are equipped with a secondary means of hazard detection in the form of warning devices like crossing gates, flashing lights, and locomotive horns to signal impending danger.

Still, that is not always sufficient to cause somebody to take that hazard seriously.

That’s another example of oblivious in action: not aware of, or not concerned about what is going on around someone.

Earbuds In

Someone puts the earbuds in, starts listening, and heads out to……. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blank: walk, shop, exercise, practice, work. Do earbuds impact their ability to detect hazards that can hurt them?

Of course it does: there’s one less sense available to detect what might hurt them, leaving them to rely on the other senses to alert them to a hazard. 

Do people do that? All the time. 

When they do, do they understand what they are doing to become oblivious to sound as a means of recognizing hazards? Of course they do.

Does it cost them something when they do?  Rarely. 

Rarely is not the same thing as never. It just seems that way.  People are certain about something they should not be sure about. 

Therein lies the root of the problem.

When Things Go Awry

So back to the lede: the construction tragedy. The investigators will determine the facts and draw conclusions based on those facts. That’s their job. 

But not mine. Or yours. 

As a leader in your operation, your most important job is seeing to it that your followers go home alive and well at the end of every day. Learning from the mistakes of others helps your cause: first-hand experience with every failure is not required, nor is full and complete knowledge about everything that goes awry. 

So, let’s make a few reasonable assumptions about this event: the headset was worn at the time of the event, and music listened to. Were that the case, the sense of sound is removed from the list of the means of recognizing hazards. 

Let’s mix that assumption in with the facts that are known from reading the news story. It’s a highway construction site, with lots of construction traffic like dump trucks coming and going, forwards and backwards.

Aka, hazards.

A spotter was required for dump trucks that were backing up. None were present when Franklin was struck by a reversing truck. The dump truck driver did not even realize he hit Franklin.

Does that situation sound a bit familiar? This is a classic example where multiple independent failures produce an event. A spotter would have warned the person about the dump truck backing up; the driver could have balked at backing up without a spotter. Neither of those failures was the fault of the deceased. 

But had Mr. Franklin had the benefit of his sense of hearing, he might very well have heard the truck backing up in his direction. If he had, likely his instinct for self-preservation would have gotten him out of harm’s way.

What, Me Worry?

When it comes to safety, nobody has a greater vested interest in safety than the person in harm’s way. Safety is all about their life, first and foremost. That’s not to say there aren’t ripple effects: it’s not hard to imagine how that dump truck driver felt when he realized what happened.

In theory, the instinct for self-preservation ought to be more than sufficient to cause people to take all necessary measures to assure they are safe. In practice, it is not.

As to why that is not sufficient, you can come up with a long list of reasons. At or near the top is the simplest of explanations: people wrongly assume “That will never happen to me.”

In the case of Earbud Nation, we assume we can wear our earbuds in the store, at the gym, out on the sidewalk because we are sure no harm will ever come to us because we cannot hear a potential hazard.

Worse, every time we do that, and nothing bad happens to us, that misperception is positively reinforced. Is it any wonder why we collectively behave the way we do?

In a word, that collective behavior is culture.

As to what to do to change the culture, there are two small steps that might help make a difference. Don’t go wearing your earbuds when you shouldn’t.

And spread the word about sad stories like this one. 

Paul Balmert
October 2019

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