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Adapting to Change

On Sept. 24, 1960, I sat on the living room floor and intently watched the final episode of Howdy Doody. As an 8-year-old boy, Howdy Doody was the highlight of my Saturday morning ritual and I was devastated. The trauma was exacerbated when my 14-year-old brother explained that the program was canceled because Howdy (the show’s namesake marionette) was infested with termites. (I was young enough and naive enough to believe him.) There was nothing I could do. My Saturday mornings changed forever.

It was not my final encounter with change. There is some controversy over who first said, “Change is the only constant.” Some attribute it to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 B.C.) Regardless, there seems to be considerable truth in the statement – one thing that we can always count on is change.

Change can be good or bad, advantageous or harmful. Or it can have little or no consequence, depending on one’s own personal perspective. The effects of change – especially the harmful effects can be tempered by foresight and planning. That gives one the opportunity to prepare and to exert some control (if not over the change itself) over the effects of the change. The effects of institutional changes are frequently moderated by a process known as management of change (MOC). Still, we must adapt to changes in our work environment daily – even hourly.

Frequently a work crew (or even an individual worker) will find that in the process of tackling a well-planned job, something changes unexpectedly. Such changes, even relatively small ones, can leave the team or individual unprepared to perform the job safely. Changes can become contributing factors and even root causes of workplace injuries. The possibilities are endless: there could be a gust of wind, a tool breaks or a coworker makes a sudden unexpected movement; there’s a flash of light, a spark, then a spill or a dropped tool. The list goes on.

So how does one protect one’s self from these inevitable but unpredictable changes?

There are three responses to such changes:

  • Ignore the change.
  • Shift to plan B (assuming that the change was anticipated in the initial plan).
  • Stop.

Ignoring the change is probably a more common response that we would like to accept. However, ignoring the change increases the risk of injury. Effective back-up safeguards may mitigate the effects and the job may (and frequently is) completed without injury.

If a breakdown (change) is anticipated in the job plan, a quick transition to plan B can provide an effective path to completing the job without increased risk of injury. Back-up tools are immediately available. Alternate procedures are pre-arranged. Assistance can be summoned quickly.

In most cases, the best resolution is to STOP the work. Analyze the change and take the appropriate time and effort to neutralize the change. A thorough analysis of the situation does not have to take too long, but should include several important steps.

  • Re-assess the risks – how does the change affect the hazards associated with the job?
  • Identify what resources are required to control the risks.
    – What additional tools, personnel or equipment will be required?
    – How will the process be changed?
    – What additional skills or knowledge is needed to adapt?
  • Communicate the new plan. This includes ensuring that each member of the team fully understands the altered plan and communicating the adjustment to others who may be affected.

In short, follow the same steps that would have been performed in planning the job initially.

Injury analysis has shown that unexpected change is a common factor leading to work injuries and that knowledge should lead us to understand that changes can lead to devastating injuries off the job too.