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What’s Outside the Box?

By Randy Logsdon

So, I looked in the refrigerator and counted the boxes of leftovers from dining out. In a day or two, we would be returning home from the vacation resort, and leaving these behind just was not an option. And, there was too much to consume before we left. How to get this stuff home?

It looked like we would have to transport four Styrofoam take-home boxes of perishable leftovers in the car for the better part of a full day. We needed a cooler. So, we headed out to Wal-Mart to find a cheap cooler of sufficient size. The cooler was larger and more expensive than I would have liked but we proceeded to the checkout anyway. Then I was reminded that we needed some zipper-type freezer bags to hold the ice in the cooler, so we found a small box of freezer bags and added that to this emergency purchase.

The cooler worked. It was large enough for the Styrofoam boxes with room for ice carefully sealed in the freezer bags. It wasn’t until we were about half way home that it suddenly dawned on me that I had made a critical mistake. I both literally and figuratively failed to think “outside the box.”

Acquiring the Tools
I realized at that point that we had actually acquired the tools to accomplish the task of transporting the leftovers using much less space and being much more economical, yet we’d failed to realize that fact earlier. The leftover meals did not have to remain in the Styrofoam boxes. They could have been re-packed and consolidated in the extra freezer bags and packed much more efficiently into a much smaller (less expensive) cooler.

The lesson I learned was that in the act of problem solving, we sometimes become so focused adapting to the conditions we are given that we forget that we may sometimes have control over those conditions. That’s “inside-the-box” thinking. Granted, some conditions are more flexible than others. But, it’s worth taking a moment when evaluating solutions to ask if the parameters can be changed.

Acting on outside-the-box thinking, however must be considered carefully. There are certain safety rules and procedures to consider. These rigid sides to that box must be respected. To a large extent, that box helps to ensure our safety. But once in a while, we should open a window and look around outside the box. We should ask the question: “Is there a better way?”

There is a Better Way
Assuming that there is a better way (even a way that improves safety), a second step is required. Identify any new hazards that may be created by the change. Those hazards (even potential hazards) must be controlled before proceeding.

Some examples:

  • Light poles were installed on the perimeter of the open top floor of a processing plant. Electricians charged with maintaining the lights, including changing bulbs, identified a risk in accessing the light fixtures using stepladders. The solution was to modify the light pole so that the fixture could be easily lowered to floor level. They changed the conditions.
  • Rigid baffles installed in a rotary dryer required scheduled replacement. The job required cutting out worn baffles and replacing them with new 12-ft.-long baffles. The platform outside the opening to the dryer was only 6-ft. wide so the baffles were manhandled at an angle from an adjoining process floor from above. Consideration was given to installing a conveyor system of rollers and necessary rigging to limit the manual handling until someone asked if the baffles had to be that long. They did not. They could easily be cut into 4-ft. sections, and installed in linear fashion using the same mounts inside the dryer. The conditions could be changed.
  • Finally, there is an unsubstantiated example that has gathered some internet exposure. It seems that a product line was producing a significant number of empty boxes (without the product). Millions of dollars were spent analyzing the problem and devising a solution. A scale was added to the product line that would automatically stop the line when a light (empty) box was detected. The solution worked. In fact, it worked so well that the company found that after a short period of time, the number of empty boxes crossing the scale had declined to near zero. After some astute inquiry of the line workers, it was discovered that one of the workers had placed a small table fan directed across the line up stream from the scale. The fan would blow away the empty boxes, leaving only the full boxes to proceed to the scale. Further inquiry revealed that a worker grew tired of having to reset the line whenever an empty box crossed the scale, so he set up the fan to blow away the empty boxes early.

Your box may be large or it may be small. Regardless, stop once in a while and consider what’s outside your box.

Randy K. Logsdon, CMSP, is manager of safety for Intrepid Potash New Mexico operations. He has practiced safety on both the coal and metal/non-metal side of mining for more than 30 years. Randy is a Certified Mine Safety Professional. ­­­He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..