Before every takeoff, you are advised where to find your life preserver or flotation seat cushion. Yet, in the most famous and successful landing on water in history, almost no one has on a life preserver. If ever there was a time to wear one, you would think this was it.
A report in the Wall Street Journal this week looks at life preservers on airplanes. It is worth a read for anyone in the safety field, because it describes a complete failure for a critical piece of personal protective equipment:
Even though life vests have been a routine part of overwater air travel, there are problems with their design that limit their usefulness in crash landings. They are so difficult to find under seats and put on securely in an emergency that only 33 passengers of 150 aboard US Airways Flight 1549 had a life vest after the plane splashed down in the Hudson River in 2009. Only four people managed to properly don their life vest, securing the waist strap so it wouldn’t pop off.
So why do they put life preservers on planes? Largely for psychological comfort and public relations – Airlines don’t want to look like they aren’t doing anything to protect passengers in a water landing. In other words, it is a placebo, a harmless piece of equipment that makes us feel safer.
In the working world, how many safety placebos do we have in place? One of the sacred cows of safety, Job Safety Analysis (JSA’s) may fit into this category depending on the way it is used. Insurance companies are an important source of statistical analysis for what actually improves safety and what doesn’t. An insurance risk expert once told me the insurance companies don’t pay any attention to whether companies have JSAs because they do not see any correlation between JSAs and injury rates. Yet some companies spend a lot of time and energy making sure crews fill out JSA forms. I once heard about an oil company that required a JSA for the drive from the road to the drill site.
That is not to say that JSAs aren’t valuable, but in my experience, too many companies rely on checklists, forms and other documentation to prove they are working safely, in other words, safety placebos. The real value of JSAs comes from the discussion on the crew over how they will do the job, the leadership of the supervisor in making sure everyone understands his or her role and the training that goes into working safely.
What safety placebos does your company rely on?