A Simple Job

“…read what the instructions are when using the product.” 
     ~Michael Goldberg
“This is just a simple job.” How many times have you thought that about something you were about to do? When something went wrong, how many times has someone explained, “This was a simple job.”
Sometimes simple jobs are simple; sometimes they just seem that way. Either way, there’s no guarantee that a simple job can’t go wrong, or, if it does, won’t produce serious harm.
Case in point: a simple clean up job, done in the kitchen of a sports bar. When the person tasked with washing the floor poured cleaner on the floor and started scrubbing, the product reacted with another type of cleaning product that earlier had been spilled there.  It proved to be a lethal combination, producing chlorine gas. 
Fourteen people – including two customers – became sick and were sent to the hospital. The most serious exposure was suffered by the restaurant manager. When the staff evacuated the kitchen, he rushed back in, squeegee in hand, to clean up the mess.  
He did not survive the chlorine exposure.
Simple Jobs
As a management consultant with an interest in safety, clients regularly show me their list of “how our people got hurt.” Over two decades, I’ve seen hundreds of lists from industrial operations the world over, with thousands of examples of how people get hurt. I call these injury headlines: like a headline in a newspaper, there’s just enough information to get a sense of what went wrong. That’s all I’m looking for.
A good headline reveals the hazard, the activity at the time of the event, and the harm to the person. The headline for the sports bar event might read: Exposed to chlorine gas while attempting to mitigate the hazard created by the mixture of two different cleaning products. A collection of injury headlines is a useful way to get a sense of the underlying safety trend data that neither injury investigation reports nor leading and lagging metrics provide. 
For example, picture a simple data sorting exercise: categorize each case that resulted in a serious injury as either “a complex and hazardous task” or “a simple task.” In a typical year, at a typical industrial operation, what do you think the split would be?
If you’ve read about the sports bar tragedy, and given the subject some amount of critical thinking, you’re probably thinking the majority of cases of serious injury come while performing relatively simple tasks. If so, your reasoned conclusion matches my personal experience.
Of course, this isn’t offered as the finding from a research project; it’s just a simple observation based upon looking at a lot of real world cases from operations a lot like yours.  You would do well to conduct a similar exercise and see what your data tells you. Nothing like a little data to properly inform your view of any problem.
But without the benefit of this critical analysis – slower thinking, if you will – you might have thought “it’s the significant hazards that produce serious injuries.” In practice, just about any hazard you can think of is capable of producing a serious injury. You just never know how serious the effect produced by any given hazard will be – until things go wrong. Then you find out. 
I’m sure the last thing in the world that restaurant manager thought was that the floor cleaner they used in his restaurant could prove fatal to anyone.
The “Simple Job” Problem
As to why a simple task would so often be the work activity performed at the time of a serious injury, look no further than the safety statistics to provide a logical explanation. The denominator of the injury frequency rate is exposure hours: what’s counted are all the hours worked by everyone in the operation. Everyone is exposed to work related hazards, anyone can get hurt, everybody’s hours count.
A certain amount of those hours come from people who aren’t typically exposed to complex tasks with serious hazards: administrative, technical, and management personnel. So, when someone performing this kind of work gets hurt, it’s a good bet they were performing some kind of simple task at the time of their injury. Case in point: the restaurant manager responding to a cleaning problem.
That said, in any industrial operation, there are a lot of people who perform complex tasks and are exposed to serious hazards. For example, in an operation that produces or handles chlorine, those jobs might involve transferring chorine between tanks, breaking into a chlorine line and entering a tank where chlorine had been stored. 

But in a typical day, how much time is spent performing those tasks, as opposed to all of the other tasks that are routinely performed by operators and maintenance staff? You know, simple tasks like monitoring, obtaining and inspecting tools and equipment, transit time to and from the job site, and cleaning up after the job? In most operations, there is a lot of time spent doing “simple jobs” like those.
Follow the process, do the math, and the conclusion is clear: simple jobs are a big part of what we all do to make a living – and account for a significant number of cases where we get hurt.
Thinking “It’s a simple job”
Statistically, simple jobs represent a large slice of workplace hazard exposure.  On the other hand, you might reasonably assume that it’s less likely to get hurt doing a simple job than one that is complex and hazardous. If so, that would lead to the conclusion that the number of cases where someone gets hurt doing a simple job should be relatively small.
It’s a good hypothesis, but the data I regularly see from clients the world over contradicts it. 
As to why practice doesn’t match theory, it’s not the least bit difficult to offer an explanation: when people think the hazard is serious and if they are not careful, it’s likely that they will get hurt, they act very carefully. And they don’t get hurt.
It’s what I have come to call the Law of Caution: Whenever you are acutely aware of a hazard you think will likely hurt you, you act very carefully.
The tragic event that happened in the kitchen of the sports bar is the perfect illustration of how the Law of Caution plays out in real life.  The Fire Department is called out to a restaurant because “some kind of toxic gas is making people very sick.” Emergency responders show up wearing respiratory and full body protection because they are fully and acutely aware of the harm some unknown toxic material is fully capable of producing. 
That’s following the Law of Caution.
At the other end of the spectrum, those who were handed the cleanser and tasked with cleaning the floor may well have not even thought to read the product label and, in turn, evaluate the condition of the floor before dispensing the product. They’re thinking, it’s just a cleanser; it’s just a kitchen floor; it’s just a simple job.
Don’t be too hard on them: we do the same thing all the time.  At work and at home. Most of the time, things turn out well.  Unfortunately, once in a while things don’t.
As to what to do to keep yourself and others out of harm’s way, whenever anyone’s thinking “It’s just a simple job” the best thing to do to is to apply the Law of Caution: Whenever you are acutely aware of a hazard you think will likely hurt you, you act very carefully.
Follow that, and two things are likely to happen: many of those seemingly simple jobs won’t seem that way. And whether the job is simple or complex and hazardous, it’s more likely to be done safely.
Paul Balmert
November 2019

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