An iPhone in the Amazon

It was a common theme not too long ago… violate a safety rule, get taken to the gate. For those that may not be familiar with “the gate”, it means you were fired. No questions asked, no explanation, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Generally speaking, the rules being broken usually were high level directives. Ones that, if they were not enforced and/or followed would result in serious injury or death. For example, fall protection violations. If you don’t tie off while working at height, you could fall and be killed, therefore, if you are caught not tied off working at height, you are fired. One particular day on a construction project, not too long ago in a galaxy… well, it was this galaxy. I was wandering though a work area on a group safety audit when low and behold, we happened upon an employee working on top of a small structure. He was wearing the required fall protection equipment but was not tied off. A safety representative summoned him to ground level and subsequently had him escorted to the gate. As we stood next to the structure discussing the event (life critical safety violations require quite a bit of paperwork), the employee’s Supervisor walks out to almost the exact same spot on which the employee was standing, also not tied off. Ten minutes later, he too was escorted out of the gate. It bothered me to watch two men, possibly with families, lose their jobs within minutes of each other. As I voiced my disapproval I was told, “They both ignored training. If we let them stay it will eventually end in an incident for the project and we will not have that”. I understood the sentiment but I did not agree.

When my youngest daughter was not even two years old, she was able to pick up her Mother’s iPhone, slide her little finger across the screen to bring up the keypad and enter my Wife’s security code to unlock the device. We were dumbfounded. We had created possibly the smartest child to ever live. The older children may have been sightly offended by this observation. It dawned on us later that, while she is an extremely bright child, it was not necessarily her intelligence level that granted her superior hacking abilities. She lives in a house that had, at the time, three iPhone operators. Now take my Wife’s iPhone then fly, boat and eventually walk deep into the Amazon jungle. There are to this day, small pockets of tribes that have not had exposure to the outside world. One was found as recently as this year. Look it up… they exist. Imagine meeting one of these tribes and handing over my Wife’s phone to one of the village elders. Tell them, “Here, this is a smart phone. You can make calls and check Facebook with it”. I think it is safe to surmise they would have no idea what you handed them, let alone what it does or how to operate it. The entire concept of communicating that way does not even exist to them.

Let’s go back to the two employees that violated the fall protection policy. I said earlier that I did not agree that they should have so quickly been escorted from the project and I stand by that. Do I think no employee should ever be removed for violating a safety directive, especially a life critical one? Absolutely not. Sometimes you can correct and coach until you are out of breath. Sometimes the message just isn’t received. In those rare cases of blatant disregard for safety, yes they need find a work environment better suited to their needs. What I am a firm believer in is opening dialog. We corrected the problem on a project level by eliminating the risk… to us. What we failed to do was determine WHY those men were working without being tied off. In my growing number of years as a safety professional, most of the time the answer to that question is simply a lack of understanding. Ensuring that the employees understand why they  are required to abide by safety directives and also ensuring that information is received will correct unsafe behavior a large portion of the time. Without the proper knowledge, those men will more that likely continue to work unsafe until either corrected properly or an incident occurs.

So how do we ensure communication has been received adequately? I think we can agree that not everyone is alike, right? Just like we cannot communicate to every person the exact same way, we cannot assume every person will receive the given message the exact same way. Think of the telephone game… you start with a line of people and whisper a message the first person in the line, “the payphone is blue and only takes quarters”. The message is then passed from person to person down the line. By the time you get to the last person the message usually has changed. “The pick up truck is red and only takes diesel fuel”. In the essence of time and logistics, especially in a project or turnaround setting where you may be training dozens of people a day, you may not have the luxury of individualized training for each intended audience member. Standardized communication (training) can be provided but we must make sure that the information is received adequately by the employee. An easy way for general info could be a written test or work place evaluation. For more specialized information with higher consequence, a brief one on one with follow ups may be necessary. The thing to remember is to never assume without verifying. When in doubt, remember the iPhone in the Amazon… COMMON SENSE IS NOT COMMON!

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