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Principle Number Five: Safety is a Given

By Randy K. Logsdon

This is the fifth in a series of six columns exploring traditional principles of safety. Previous parts were entitled: “Safety First,” “Safety is Just Common Sense,” “Compliance = Safety” and “Accidents are a Matter of (Bad) Luck.” – Ed.

The typical box is made up of six panels – top, bottom and four sides. That same structure can be applied to the figurative box often referenced when one is advised to “think outside of the box.” This is the fifth of six columns focused on expanding our approach to safety beyond each of those six panels.

Whether it’s a misconception or just an unconscious acceptance, there is often a tendency to view safety as a natural state. Perhaps it’s because so many safeguards are built in and safety systems components are often automatic.

Whatever the task, job or project, it is sometimes assumed that it will be performed under an inherently stable umbrella of safety. There are unnatural exceptions to this safety status quo. And when those exceptions are uncovered (whether in planning or in execution) then safety must be addressed. But is that normal safety state really true?

Even in nature where one might expect a certain natural balance, there are forces of change and transference of energy that alter that balance. When a tree falls in the forest, energy is released even if no one is there to observe. The rushing stream erodes the bank and eventually undercuts enough to allow gravity to act upon the unsupported earth. When man introduces outside energy to change the environment, that balance is further shifted.

We cut into the earth. We place personnel in elevated positions and underground tunnels. We introduce high-voltage electricity. We string lines of compressed air. We operate mobile equipment capable of producing incredible damage. We operate mechanical-hydraulic systems capable of crushing the hardest rock. We transport tons of material to heights and try to control its descent through our process equipment. We work with volatile fuels and explosives. We handle caustic and toxic chemicals.

And we do most of this outdoors under the intense heat of the sun, the darkness of night, the cold winters, and through violent storms. Perhaps safety is better characterized as a constant battle to protect each of us from the potential destructive effects of the energy we employ to our benefit in our daily lives.

Then there is also the human element. Would it be accurate to say that most people, when confronted with one or more options, will act on the option that represents the lowest risk?

History tells us that humans are habitual risk-takers. Risk-takers crossed the Atlantic in 1492 to find America (not Asia). Risk-takers explored and settled North America. Risk-takers made travel by air a reality. Risk-takers walked on the moon. Risk-takers go to war when called. Humans often choose the riskier option for a number of reasons – reward, prestige, hope, sacrifice and patriotism to name a few. Humans will weigh risk against speed, efficiency, ease and emotion.

Within the context of the human element, safety is not a given. As with the environment we find (or create), we have to fight for safety at every turn. We have to objectively evaluate risk and apply the best tools at our disposal to minimize risk.

The battle for safety is fought on two fronts: environment and human. On both lines, we must not assume safety as a given. Assume rather, that without active attention, reminders and reinforcement, our existing controls and systems will eventually wane. And we may not even know until something happens.

Recap of Parts 1-4
  • Safety First: Safety should not be considered a priority – priorities change. Safety should be applied as a foundational value in every activity or task.
  • Safety is Just Common Sense: Safety can be said to be more than just common sense and more than applied specialized knowledge and training.
  • Compliance = Safety: Compliance may effectively protect miners from ordinary hazards and compliance with established safety rules and regulations should be viewed as an important (one of several) component in defining safety in mining operations. However, compliance will not necessarily protect miners from the extraordinary.
  • Accidents Are a Matter of (Bad) Luck: Whether an injury incident occurs is a function of the merging of interdependent actions.