This day is a time to reflect upon and commemorate the lives of thousands of workers that have been lost through the decades. In 2009 alone, 939 Canadian workers were killed either at work or travelling to work.
Earlier this year, following a day’s work, several equipment operators parked their side-booms, which are large, tracked vehicles used to lift and install pipe on pipeline projects. After shutting down their equipment and finishing any outstanding tasks, operators typically exit their cabs and dismount the side-boom using an installed ladder. For one of the workers in particular, this sequence of events had become almost instinctual after having completed it thousands of times over his twenty-plus-year career.
On this particular night, however, this seasoned worker noticed he had forgotten something in the side-boom cab. He doubled back to his machine, but instead of utilizing the ladder to enter the cab, he climbed the equipment’s tracks on the opposite side. He then carefully maneuvered his way across the counterweight rails between the tightly secured counterweight and the side-boom cab. Searching for the misplaced item with his back to the world, he unknowingly hit a lever releasing the side-boom’s massive counterweight. The 5,000-lb. metal object slowly inched its way down the rails toward the operator’s position, crushing him in the process. This was a terrible, terrible tragedy.
One might be quick to conclude that this accident could have been prevented. While the act itself might have been preventable by taking the proscribed route, no one could have known and therefore prevented the operator from making this decision. How many times in a given day do we complete ordinary tasks under seemingly ordinary circumstances with tools that are familiar to us? For example, a motorist makes that crucial, split-second decision at a busy intersection to turn left in front of quickly advancing traffic; or a homeowner props a ladder against the house in unstable soil justifying the unsafe act with “it will only take a second”; or a farmhand working around unshielded mechanical parts on equipment because the shields “just get in the way.”
We have all done similar things at some point in our lives, and it is only after the fact that we realize the negative or unintended consequences of our seemingly safe actions. Humans conduct almost instantaneous analyses of risk that are all-too often biased by the individual’s intended goals (that is, the need to quickly proceed through a particular intersection so as to expedite travel time). Following a poor decision, a common refrain reverberating through our collective conscious is “why did I do that?”
No answer truly satisfies this question, but we ask it time and again. Sometimes individuals feel entirely comfortable in and around their tools or equipment and take shortcuts because past practice has rendered positive reinforcement of questionable behaviours (for instance, productivity and efficiency increase when a safety shield is not in the way). People also become apathetic or complacent toward safety: “no one ever gets hurt around here.” Other times, fatigue leads to momentary lapses in judgement. Whichever is the case (or maybe a combination of all), the end result is not predicated on the worker’s deviation from standard practice.
We are human. Humans make mistakes and miscalculations — trial and error is a fundamental aspect of personal growth. In almost all cases, we have the chance to right a wrong and hopefully glean some sort of lesson from a previous error. In terms of managing risk, the initial harm of climbing equipment and entering a secure space between the cab and counterweight appeared relatively minor; the magnitude of this decision, however, was tragic.
At the end of the day, we rely upon the training and education we receive from our peers and elders to make informed and reasoned decisions. When we cross the threshold into the crucible of that moment where a decision will be made, no amount of education or bureaucratic red-tape will ultimately prevent us from making a choice: we are as prepared for that moment and resultant choice as we ever will be.
On April 28, 2011, I encourage everyone to take a moment to reflect upon the significance of this day and to commemorate the lives of workers that have been lost. Reflect upon this equipment operator’s story and realize that should one future accident be prevented because of the knowledge of this tragedy, his passing will not have been in vain. His story, among a thousand others, should be a beacon for workers across Canada to recommit to personal safety and to fully think through actions and their potential consequences.
If you have become complacent about your work or turned a blind eye to unsafe acts, it is time to change those attitudes toward, and perceptions of, what constitutes safety. Such an act on the part of every government official, professional, manager, contractor and worker will save lives — one day it may be yours.
Rob Cleveland is the Edmonton representative for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, a labour union representing 50,000 workers across a wide variety of sectors including construction, health-care, retail, service, transportation, mining and more.