‘Stuff’ Happens

The whole point of a safety and health program is to implement processes and systems that serve to prevent those undesirable events that lead to injuries and damage to property or interruptions. In a perfect world our programmed safety and health initiatives would work flawlessly. No injuries would occur, breakdowns would be eliminated and our production, maintenance and service operations would run efficiently day in and day out.


Alas, despite our efforts, we do not operate in a perfect world.

And that’s why, in a recent safety meeting, one of the attendees made the bold remark that stuff happens. Well, he didn’t really use the word “stuff.” His language was actually a bit more colorful.

I was an observer at this safety meeting that was lead by a capable staff member but I remember my initial reaction was that such a remark had something of a defeatist quality. In retrospect, I was glad that I allowed the discussion to continue a bit while I gathered my thoughts before responding.

The fact is our safety and health systems are not perfect. We cannot predict all the scenarios that could lead to failures (incidents). The tasks performed in mining are complex (often made more complex by safeguards we’ve introduced to the procedure).

They involve powerful energy sources, heavy equipment, adverse environments and precise interaction of human beings. Still, when we analyze failures, we find that the vast majority are preventable – usually at more than one level. Of course, such preventative measures are much easier to identify after the fact.

I did enter the discussion. “Yes,” I said, “stuff does happen.” My agreement may have come as a shock to some in the room. I went on to say that our there may be flaws in our systems and that people sometimes make errors. I continued by explaining that by developing the habit of being alert to hazards and planning for potential failures, we can each improve our likelihood of survival.

When “stuff” happens, the difference between a serious or fatal injury and a minor incident may be our first (and possibly only) reaction. Sometimes one realizes that something bad is going to happen – it’s just a matter of how bad that something will be. How we’re positioned and the PPE we are using can contribute to survivability as well as that intangible ability to predict what might happen.

In summary, I offered three points for consideration.

  • Develop the habit of being alert to conditions around you. Some use the term “keep your head on a swivel.” The conditions going in to a task are subject to change over time – either by the task or by outside factors. Active situational awareness may provide just the edge needed to avoid catastrophe when things suddenly go wrong.
  • Tap into the mental resources. Do not just rely on your own skills, knowledge and experience. Everyone has a different knowledge base – even the new guys. Talk to others about the job and what could happen. Ask questions. (One may even find useful information in an operation or maintenance manual.)
  • Plan for failure. Develop mental scenarios. What would happen if this would break? How will I react if my partner drops his end? How can I recover if the brakes fail? Practice those best responses mentally.

These strategies can effectively mitigate the consequences of a situation that’s out of control but only if performed in preparation for the task. When “stuff” happens, it’s too late to plan a response.

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