Principle Number Six: Not Here, Not Now, Not Me

By Randy K. Logsdon

This is the sixth in a series of six columns exploring traditional principles of safety.” – Ed.

The typical box is made up of six panels – top, bottom and four sides. That same structure can be applied to the figurative box often referenced when one is advised to “think outside of the box.” This is the last of six columns focused on expanding our approach to safety beyond each of those six panels. Webster defines complacency as “self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.”

Through Aug. 2, MHSA has recorded 17 fatal injuries in metal/non-metal mines spread across 14 states this year. At the thousands of untouched operations, hearts go out to those victims, their families and their coworkers. Most of those operations have a long history free of fatal incidents and many have experienced few (if any) MSHA reportable injuries. So we take comfort in the perception that these are “safe” operations.

We may recall an incident or two in the distant past, but we also recall the unique circumstances leading up to those incidents and thereby preserve that comfort knowing that we are protected from such tragedies. We study the MSHA published Fatalgrams and take (self-) satisfaction in the knowledge that such an incident could not happen here; certainly not now, and it would never happen to me. But one must wonder how many miners at those unfortunate 17 operations uttered those same phrases before beginning work that fateful day.

I have no special insight concerning the role that complacency played in any of the 17 fatal injuries that the industry had experienced so far this year. But I suggest that not one of the miners at any one of those operations anticipated even a minor injury that shift. Certainly, as an industry, complacency is a phenomenon that we must regard seriously.

Webster identifies two main components in the definition of complacency – (1) self-satisfaction and (2) unawareness (of actual dangers or deficiencies). The two are linked. Self-satisfaction can be described as a mental or cultural state – the comfort level that we’ve achieved individually or as an organization through years of working essentially injury free. There is some validity in the old saying “if it works, don’t fix it,” provided one understands the “it” that works. Where safety is concerned, it may not need to be fixed but it may be wise to improve.

Unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies is critical and is unacceptable. We’ve all worked under unconfirmed assumptions or been blind-sided by the unexpected. This unawareness issue extends beyond the simple lack of knowledge of a danger or deficiency. Consider also the potential that there may be an unawareness (or undervalued analysis) of the potential injury or damage that could occur in a given situation. How many deaths have occurred when the team thought that the worst that could happen would be a minor injury or property damage? There are established methods for improving awareness through communication and established procedures and for improving evaluation of risk through structured risk assessment.

I will take the liberty of expanding on Webster’s definition and add that the failure to act upon known dangers or deficiencies plays an equally critical role in contributing to complacency. From inadequate housekeeping to operating defective equipment, experience has taught us that we can get the job done quickly and efficiently (most of the time) by applying time-tested shortcuts. Whether you climb over that spill or operate a power tool with the frayed cord, you may just be demonstrating a degree of complacency.

Recap of Parts 1-5
  • Safety First: Safety should not be considered a priority – priorities change. Safety should be applied as a foundational value in every activity or task.
  • Safety is Just Common Sense: Safety can be said to be more than just common sense and more than applied specialized knowledge and training.
  • Compliance = Safety: Compliance may effectively protect miners from ordinary hazards and compliance with established safety rules and regulations should be viewed as an important (one of several) component in defining safety in mining operations. However, compliance will not necessarily protect miners from the extraordinary.
  • Accidents Are a Matter of (Bad) Luck: Whether an injury incident occurs is a function of the merging of interdependent actions.
  • Safety is a Given: The battle for safety is fought on two fronts: environment and human. On both lines, we must not assume safety as a given.