Snow Days: What They Say About Safety And Response

I am a proud survivor of the coldsnap-magedon that hit the South this month.   I hunkered down on my living room sofa just outside New Orleans waiting for some official to tell me I could drive over a bridge without causing the end of the world.  No snow on the ground but every road between where I live and everywhere else was closed.  Then I saw this graphic in the internet and it all made sense:


Amount of snow required for schools to cancel
Amount of snow required for schools to cancel

We do terrible with snow. We lose our heads.  We panic.

Where we live the problem was ice on bridges, but, as temperatures rose above freezing, You would have thought officials could re-open the roads and control traffic with speed or lane restrictions.  Instead they just kept the bridges and roads closed.  In other words they  chose to block every road in and out rather than trust us to be careful.   Have we shown through our behavior in past weather events that we can’t be trusted to have any sense at all?  Yeah, probably we have.

Relating it back to workplace safety or response efforts,  any effort  is a two-sided, interactive process between the people trying to manage the hazards and the people who have to live with the hazards.  Success happens when we prepare correctly and the people who are impacted behave themselves.   So many incidents happen because the people who designed the safety control assumed that  workers, will behave rationally and not like a knuckleheads.  Unfortunately,  no design control can stand up to an employee who is looking for a shortcut, gets distracted or left his brains at home when he went to work that day.  Similarly, disaster responses tend to work great right up to the time when people are involved.   Want proof – how many cars are lost in floods because people bypass traffic barriers and  try to drive on submerged roads?

Experienced HSE professionals or response planners learn that there is no such thing as fool-proof, because the fools just get more creative or persistent all the time. They know that their job is not to build the perfect system, it is to anticipate all of the ways that someone can bypass that system.  The first line of defense is to remove the hazard.  Since that is rarely a real world option, the second option is communication.

Communication wears many faces.  Sometimes it is training.  Sometimes it is raising awareness.  A big part of it is always managing expectations:

  • If a worker expects that he can do his job without wearing PPE and not get hurt, we need to manage that expectation by making sure he knows the consequences of not wearing PPE.  That’s training.
  • If a worker expects to ignore a warning sign, we need to manage that expectation by showing their is a price to pay for not following safety rules. That’s management.
  • If residents expect to stay in their houses and ride out a killer hurricane,  authorities need to manage that expectation by letting them know that the wind may rip their roofs off.  That is raising their awareness.

The problem is communication is hard.  It takes time.  It takes repetition.  It takes putting things in terms that people can understand.   Having lived in some of those states that were not green on the map above, I just can’t believe that it is impossible to drive carefully on an icy road.  However, I do know there was not the time or way to manage our expectations during this storm so that we would all understand what would happen if we didn’t drive carefully.

So it looks like officials weren’t protecting us from icy bridges. They were protecting us from ourselves and our expectations that we had nothing to worry about.  Isn’t that was we really do in safety anyway – we don’t protect workers from hazards as much as we protect them from themselves.

Or that is what occurred to me when I sat on my couch watching the weatherman.

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