I recently spoke with a Director of EH&S who said, “When we are working on hazardous or complex tasks we do a risk assessment, job safety analysis and a toolbox talk about it. However, my guys are getting hurt while walking across the site. They simply step on a rock and roll their ankle.” In many cases it’s not the obvious hazards that are getting people hurt, but rather it’s when workers become so desensitized to small risks that they stop paying attention to them.
Another safety professional told me about a worker who went to climb a crane ladder, which was something he did regularly. This time, though, he failed to maintain three points of contact, slipped on the second rung and broke his leg. He barely made it off the ground and now he can’t work for at least eight weeks, all because of a “stupid” mistake.
Bulletproof perception of risk
In both of these examples, injuries occurred not because someone was taking a serious shortcut or had a major mental lapse but because they weren’t focused on small but very real hazards. Their complacency and the frequency of these two activities contributed to taking their mind off what they were doing and they failed to even think about or properly evaluate their chances of getting hurt.
In many jobs the frequency of high-risk activities is pretty low, but construction workers have to deal with lots of hazardous energy on a regular basis. So while they’re used to contending with elevated risk levels they’re also more likely to have a skewed perception of that risk. I’m pretty sure this is why so many construction workers think they’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof—after you’ve operated massive equipment driving your car home seems like nothing. But when you feel like you can handle anything then you end up developing a blind spot to things that can put you in the hospital.
It’s telling that at 29.3%, sprains, strains and tears are by far the largest category of injury in the construction industry. In many cases, the causes of these injuries aren’t immediately evident to the people who end up getting hurt because they’re not looking for them. As we’ve seen, even walking without looking where you’re going on a construction site could end very badly. And the more bulletproof workers feel, the more likely they are to get hurt—and there’s a good chance that it will be a “low-risk” activity that causes the injury.
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