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The Power of Knowledge

Many parts of the Southwest are designated as open range. My community in southeast New Mexico is one of those areas. In open range areas, cattle are not segregated from some infrequently traveled state and county roads.

Inevitably there are occasional encounters between motor vehicles and cattle. Such encounters typically occur at night, involve black cows, and result in undesirable consequences for both the cow and the driver.

One such encounter occurred overnight recently on a county road near a mining operation. The seat belt and air bag were instrumental in mitigating the injuries to the driver (damage to the pick-up truck was extensive). The cow was not so fortunate.

Law enforcement personnel were notified and the rancher was informed of the incident. The driver reported sounding the horn on the truck in an effort to warn the cow away from the traffic lane. That step delayed her reaction to brake and she was unable to stop in time to avoid colliding with the apparently unworried animal.

Further investigation revealed a detail that I subsequently learned is common knowledge to New Mexico natives but was something of a revelation to transplants such as me.

It seems that ranchers in the area commonly use their truck horns to call their cattle to receive feed supplements. That means that the cattle are conditioned to respond to the sound of a pick-up horn in anticipation of a treat.

Had the driver been armed with that bit of knowledge, the incident may have been avoided. The cow was expecting a treat and was struck by a mass of steel and plastic instead.

Lessons Learned

Good communication is vital to maintaining safety. We rely on both verbal and non-verbal to communicate specific responses. In many cases, non-verbal communication is more efficient and precise than the verbal alternative. In underground mining, cap lamp motions are used to communicate instructions such as yes, no, stop, come toward me, go right or go left.

They are perfectly understood in an underground setting, but confusing in most other contexts. Specific signals are used for picking materials with a crane, as warnings for blasting operations, as alerts for emergencies or equipment startup.

Three horn blasts may mean an imminent blast at one location and an all clear at another operation. Imagine the confusion a new employee, contractor or visitor may experience.

Sometimes the most minute bit of information can also be the most essential in preventing a dreadful incident. Knowing the odd factoid about ranchers’ custom of calling cattle with a pickup truck horn would have led the driver on the New Mexico roadway to apply a different and perhaps more effective strategy in avoiding the collision.

Early in my mining career an underground miner pulled me aside and warned me against resting my hand on the top surface of any equipment underground. He explained that doing so places your hand at risk of more extensive damage should even a small piece of shale fall from the roof.

He pointed to several pieces of sharp shale that were at that moment resting on the top surface of a roofbolter. That bit of knowledge was not part of the 40-hour new miner training that I’d received only days before. But it made perfect sense then and it has served me well over the years.

In a culture of safety, clearly communicating essential information and sharing knowledge freely is essential. Assumption that the other guy knows (or remembers) will only lead to failure.