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The next time you are around any hazard, remember to focus on the presence of the hazard and not allow your mind to get lost in unrelated compulsive thought.
By Steve Opper
Within the safety industry, it has been proven that the vast majority of accidents can be attributed to human error. It is also believed that human error is inevitable, since we have all heard the saying “To err is human; and to forgive, divine.” Believing that people are predestined to make errors and cause accidents left the safety industry only one option for accident prevention. This option was to create new tools, better equipment, and workplace procedures to defend against accidents caused by human error.
A defensive strategy for preventing accidents always places barriers between the craftsman and the workplace hazard. This is both the physical barriers, such as gloves, hard hats, and glasses, but also includes the mental barriers of strictly enforced step-by-step procedures. These are the two most predominate strategies within current safety programs and have created an impressive selection of tools, equipment, and step-by-step procedures designed to keep people safe. As these defensive strategies have improved, the number of deadly accidents has declined. Yet even with all the wonderful equipment at our fingertips, we lose too many workers to fatal accidents every year.
Having a strong defense for preventing accidents is only half of the solution for safety. These defensive strategies cannot compensate for the human error side of the equation. All the protective barriers in the world can never be 100 percent effective when subjected to the power of human limitations. Some of these limitations can simply make an employee decide to ignore all safety measures. Others can cause them not to see present hazards until it is too late. They can even make an employee incorrectly recall workplace procedures from memory and begin taking unsafe actions. What makes these human limitations so deadly is that they seemingly come out of nowhere and blindside us when we least expect it. When this happens in a hazard-filled environment, our awareness for the present danger is eroded. Limited levels of awareness for present danger are always the cause of every accident, but because we don’t look at accidents in this manner, we claim them to be caused by human error. This process of human limitations producing reduced levels of awareness goes on continually every day, but we have never been trained to recognize and compensate for these very human traits. We haven’t developed offensive strategies to stop human error because we don’t really believe that it can be stopped. This is the myth, over time, I would like to prove false as I explain what going on offense for safety really means.
Creating an offensive strategy, to complement the excellent defensive strategy already in place, is the next step in the evolution of needed safety skills. Hazards in the workplace have become increasingly more deadly, so a good defense can no longer win every time. As in football, a good defense can keep the game tied at zero to zero and can even score occasionally to win the game, but without a good offense it is impossible to obtain the highest levels of success. The highest levels of success in safety are measured by working safely your full career and not having any co-workers injured or killed. This level of success can become a reality only when our existing defense is combined with a new, powerful offensive strategy.
An offensive strategy in safety would combat accidents produced by human error by revealing the human limitations which repeatedly creates these errors. Many of these limitations are identical within us all, but some are unique to the individual, depending on environmental exposure and learned responses. Every person has the power to compensate for these inherent weaknesses, but no one can defend against a threat that he doesn’t even know exists. Knowledge is power for every task you will ever complete, and learning about yourself can give you the power to combat the human limitations that cause human errors. Everyone needs this power in the face of modern-day hazards that always remain 100 percent poised to make us pay for any moment of unawareness to these dangers.
I began searching for the causes of human error after losing two friends to workplace accidents. I knew we must be missing a piece of the safety puzzle for these accidents to occur. Both men were excellent power linemen and not the type to make the errors that cost them their lives. If these men could suffer an accident, then I knew that nobody was really safe. We needed to understand the information that produced human error, and in the beginning I didn’t have a clue as to what the solution may be. However; today I can say the information is no longer missing. My findings, after 20 years of research, can be found in my book “Be Safe.” It is my intention to write a series of articles to share these findings with you. Hopefully you will share these articles with your co-workers. Going on offense to protect each other from harm is long overdue, but it starts right now by learning about your own human limitations.
Our Visual Limitations
There are only three areas of human limitations that cause accidents. They gain their power to harm us because we operate daily as if we don’t possess any limitations at all. Two of these limitations are created by our biology. These can be found in the amount of information we can see in one second and in the processing and retrieving of memories. We vastly overestimate the amount of information we see in any work environment, and we believe our memories to be an accurate account of work procedures. Memories can be accurate accounts from the past, but they may also be combined with details from a completely separate event. This can allow memories to be highly inaccurate and change over time. The third human limitation comes from our ability to be highly creative. We possess the power to take incomplete information and draw false conclusions. We compile these conclusions into a belief system that holds true beliefs and false beliefs. Our beliefs are the foundation of our emotions, negative thoughts, available intelligence, and unsafe actions.
One of mankind’s greatest weaknesses is that we cannot differentiate between reality formed from wisdom and an illusion formed by false beliefs. The confusion is born in that each person holds a belief of truthfulness for what they have created. This is the birthplace of overconfidence, rushing, daydreaming, breakdowns in communication, and control issues, just to name a few. When we hold false beliefs as a part of the software programming within our minds, our actions are a reflection of these error-filled beliefs. Our limitations in memory and self-created beliefs will be revealed in greater detail in future articles, but the greatest gain you can make today, for your safety tomorrow on the job, is to understand your visual limitations.
The most continuous limitation can be found in that there is much more information within any environment than you can mentally download through your vision. To say we are performing our jobs partially blindfolded is not as far from reality as you may believe. For example, let’s say there are one million bits of information around you at the job site. At your maximum potential, you are only able to absorb and process about 2,000 bits of information each second. Glancing around the job site for 10 seconds, you will see only 20,000 bits of information at best. This number reduces quickly on dark rainy nights and can go down to zero when you are swept away into a daydream. This leaves the vast majority of your environment unexamined and hiding possible hazards in plain view. In order to try to compensate for an overload of possible information, your mind quickly ignores information it deems unimportant and focuses in on information it expects to see and deems important. This predisposed expectation forms a mental blindness to items out of the ordinary or different from your past experiences.
People walking down the street talking on cell phones have fallen into manholes and walked out in front of buses. If this is the case while walking down the street, imagine how this condition is compounded while driving 60 miles per hour down a busy highway or operating fast-moving incredibly powerful machinery. What we have experienced in the past is a strong determining factor for what our minds will deem worthy of noticing. People who have never been around motorcycles are more prone to pull out in front of an oncoming street bike than current or past bike riders. It is why after spending an evening out with your spouse at a friend’s house, she may ask, “Did you like the color of the carpeting you walked on all night?” You never made it past the 12-point buck hanging on the wall or the pool table, so you respond, “I didn’t notice.” Your belief system focuses in on different items than your wife’s does, because you possess different interests. It is usually after you buy that new car that seemed so unique and special on the car lot that you begin seeing the identical car everywhere you go.
Most people believe they take in many more details from the environment than they actually do. This visual limitation explains why people have walked into low-hanging power lines they didn’t see and were electrocuted. They didn’t expect the wire to be hanging low, so it went unnoticed. Knowing this natural vulnerability exists, you can develop ways to be more aware of your surroundings.
My growing understanding of visual limitations gave me the power to compensate effectively for greater protection. When I realized I can absorb only 2,000 bits of information each second, my first response was to consciously refuse to limit this ability further through compulsive thinking or daydreaming. When in the presence of any hazard, no thought should be allowed that isn’t focused on the task at hand, and ignoring this rule quickly lowers the bits per second seen. The second step I utilized was in giving my powers of vision more time to focus in on possible dangers. I did this by using the “What am I not seeing?” phrase that I said to myself as I scanned the work area.
During the last year of working before I retired, I was preparing to close a high-voltage switch just outside of a substation when I asked myself, “What am I not seeing?” I scanned the area for 30 seconds before I noticed a jumper going over a crossarm that had broken off a lightning arrester. This jumper was three inches from an opposing phase swaying in the wind. It was not visible from the ground and could easily have been missed from a bucket truck. If I had slammed the switch closed without noticing this hazard that close to a substation, I would have only been eight feet away from an arching ball of fire.
Utilizing these two approaches to increase my natural ability for seeing hazards only takes a few minutes longer per job, but it pays dividends many times over. The next time you are around any hazard, remember to focus on the presence of the hazard and not allow your mind to get lost in unrelated compulsive thought. Tomorrow on the job, ask yourself, “What am I not seeing?” Notice as more details emerge when you give your vision more time to see. Share this technique with your co-workers, since it will only be through the combined efforts of all employees that we will succeed in keeping each other safe.