The job to be done was simple: bolt a part on a bracket. Was a Job Hazard Analysis done beforehand? You’ll have to ask those who know.
The part to be installed was an antenna. Which explains why the bracket was sitting atop a municipal water tower and it was a two person job. This particular one was situated in Bethany Beach, Delaware; as the name implies, on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean.
But this job could have been done just about anywhere. Don’t take my word for it: next time you drive by a water tower, look up. Renting out this space to the wireless industry has become commonplace. It’s called a “revenue source.”
At 120 feet off the ground, a hydraulic lift was needed for access to the job. No worries: a nearby rental yard supplied the lift. The job was scheduled for the first week in November on a day when a wind advisory had been issued. On the Atlantic seaboard, that’s nothing special.
So, two people, working from a lift, 120 feet off the ground on a windy day. Read that and you can’t help but get a sense of foreboding: this job must not have ended well.
It did not, which explains how it’s become the lead here. What happened next was catastrophic, but hardly unpredictable.
A strong gust of wind – likely between twenty-five and thirty-five miles an hour – toppled the lift. The two men working on it – both in their early twenties – plunged to the ground. As they and the lift fell, they struck the nearby high voltage electrical lines. Two workplace fatalities, caused by a fall from height and contact with high voltage electricity.
As one safety researcher described statistics like these: “a tragedy with the tears dried.”
What Went Wrong?
No doubt your mind’s racing with questions. Why wasn’t this obvious hazard properly recognized and managed? What kind of training had the two been given? What was the condition of the lift? How was it positioned? Wasn’t there a better way to perform the job?
Great questions all, if your job it to investigate the event. It is not.
Investigators will have access to all the information available about the job, location, equipment, weather conditions, people assigned, and the practices of the leaders responsible for managing safety on this job. They’ll figure out the answers. That’s their job. Months from now, their report should tell you all about the who, what, when, where, how and why of the tragedy. If their report does not, the investigators won’t have done their job well.
Should they label the cause of this event using any of today’s usual suspects – “management system failure”, “normalization of deviation”, “expectancy of safety”, “culture” to cite several – they also won’t have done their job well. Bear that thought in mind the next time you’re reading an investigation report about something that happened in your operation.
But knowing what you now know, you don’t have to wait for months to read the report and then think about what to do.
Not On My Watch!
It’s tempting for a leader to hear about someone else’s failure and question “those guys.” I see it a lot, even from good leaders who should know better. I’m sure they do, but that doesn’t stop them from critiquing their peers.
Better not to tempt fate. Leave the critique to the investigators. Your job as a leader is to make darn sure something like this doesn’t happen on any job you’re responsible for.
Understanding that, when hearing about a failure like this, the questions you should be asking should have little to do with the event and everything to do with your operation and people. Do my followers – particularly those early in their careers – properly and fully understand the hazards they might encounter in the course of doing their jobs? Will they stop a job they think is not safe? What happens in a dangerous situation out there when I’m not around to supervise the work?
Given the particulars in this tragedy, let me suggest one more question to ask yourself: How good a job do we do when we execute a Job Hazard Analysis?
The “Job” In Job Hazard Analysis
If your operation is one with a routine practice of completing a Job Hazard Analysis, a failure like this should cause you to ask some tough questions about your JHA practice. If nothing else, the variables in this case – location, elevation, weather, and nearby hazards – are proof positive that “no two jobs are ever quite the same.” From a safety standpoint, they never are. So much for the value of a stock JHA on the ready to be used for any elevated work. That’s just one example of many.
You know that. But here’s something you might be missing.
If you’re going to analyze the hazards on any job, you need to look far beyond the specific task to be performed. There are matters such as where it’s going to be done, when it’s going to be done – and who’s going to do it. These have little to do with the what – task – and a lot more to do with the where and the who: the environment in which the task is to be done and those assigned to the task. The Bethany Beach event makes that so very clear. The fatal hazards found on the job weren’t a function of the task performed: had the bracket been sitting at ground level, this wouldn’t be a story.
Location plays a large role in setting up hazards that can hurt those assigned to perform the work. The analysis of location in doing the job safely should begin with getting there and back safely. Next, there’s the analysis of being where the work is done.
Yes, you know all that. Everybody does.
I will tell you that from what’s called anecdotal evidence – “I know a lot because I’ve seen a lot” – hazards found in the environment are just as likely to cause someone to get hurt as are the hazards directly associated with the specific job someone that someone was assigned to perform.
I’ll go you one more: my experience also suggests the safer your crew is, the more likely it is that if they were to get hurt, what hurt them isn’t a hazard directly related to the task they are doing at the time.
But you really shouldn’t take my word on that. You should analyze your own experience and data. Not only is it true that “no two jobs are ever quite the same” it’s also true that no two operations are ever quite the same. Yours is yours.
And yours to lead and manage safely.
If your data matches my experience, you might want to think about a new name for your Job Hazard Analysis. Like a “task, environment and person safety analysis.” All three need to be part of the scope.
Surely you can come up with a better title. But you get the point.
Stopping the Job
Finally, there’s the troubling issue of not stopping a job that feels unsafe. Perched on a lift 120 feet off the ground, wind speed at the ground averaging 14 mph and gusts more than double that, it’s hard to imagine the two weren’t feeling a whole lot of shaking going on. The manufacturer’s operating manual advises that the lift was not to be used in winds above 28 mph.
You would think that would be enough to get out of harm’s way.
I do, too. But the two who matter to the story did not. Does the fact that there were two people working on this job make it more likely that one would have said, “Enough!”?
Why didn’t they stop the job? Where was their supervisor? Did their culture put production ahead of safety?
Enough about them; this is all about you.
You have work being performed in a lot of places and you can only be in one place at a time. The question you need to be asking yourself is, If the job isn’t safe and I’m not there, what will my followers do?
If you are 100% confident that 100% of your followers will do the right thing and stop the job 100% of the time, you have no worries.
But if you’re not that confident, an event like this ought to worry you enough to keep you up at night. It does me, and I’m more than two decades removed from being in your shoes: one leader with followers spread out all over the operation.