By Randy Logsdon
As I write this, the events of the week of April 15 are still fresh in the minds of most Americans – the terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon and the fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, Texas. While we are all saddened, if not angered, by the human toll resulting from these events, we take comfort in learning that so many people, both civil and civilian, responded valiantly without hesitation to help those suddenly in need.
While the term “tragic” may seem inadequate to describe either of these events, I’ve observed a phenomenon that to me is a bit troubling. Clearly the human toll, the property damage and the local economic impact of the Texas explosion exceeds that of the Boston bombing. Yet, our emotions (perhaps with support from press coverage) have been keenly focused on the Boston event – not to the exclusion of the Texas explosion, but rather to consign that event to a secondary and less newsworthy position.
It appears that the relative significance ultimately assigned to such a tragic event is not always determined by the severity of the outcome. So I wonder why and I speculate. In due course then, I ask myself how these two events differ.
The Boston bombing was an act of terrorism. It was a conscious intent to harm. It was an attack, seemingly unprovoked and indiscriminate. An element of evil was at play. There is a sense that a similar and more lethal attack could occur in any city and at any public event. We feel vulnerable.
The West, Texas, explosion was an “accident.” That is not to say that there was no negligence or that it could not have been prevented, but all indications lead us to believe that there was no intent to harm anyone. A unique set of conditions created an unexpected danger.
While there remains some likelihood that someday there will be another industrial accident affecting a local community, we can each take affirmative steps to isolate ourselves and our families from the danger. Therefore, we have a sense of control.
A good friend of mine transitioned from an operator position at a coal-fired power plant to a similar position at a nuclear power plant. He was initially excited and very positive about his prospects and about the technology. He was confident in the safety measures employed to maintain the safety of the operation.
Months later, after he had learned more about the operation, he expressed some concern. As he became a bit more familiar with the operation, he then became more concerned about the risks. He had unanswered questions and having gained a little more information, he recognized a vulnerability.
When we spoke again a number of years later his concerns had been reversed. While he admitted to having had concerns earlier, he had learned so much more (the rest of the story as Paul Harvey might say). His questions had not only been answered, he had advanced to the point that he was the one answering those questions. He now had a sense of confidence – of control.
So I think that perhaps our sense of vulnerability is what keeps us awake at night. We feel vulnerable and worry when we do not have a sense of control. In today’s work environment, employees are typically given “stop work” authority. They are instructed not to do anything of risk for which they are not “comfortable.”
Such instruction is well intended but inadequate. One can easily rationalize “comfort” and subsequently take unnecessary risks. A much better term is “confident.”
Confidence requires a higher degree of control. Control is a function of awareness, knowledge, skill and the ability and motivation to act. I submit that success in developing that confidence (control) in employees is a huge step in accident and injury prevention.