I instruct construction workers in the various OSHA and MSHA standards and how to practically apply them to their professions. That is the simple part of my job. I also train workers to be aware of their own intuition, how it applies to their workday, and what to make of the messages they receive. That's the complicated part.
We can achieve any standards-based knowledge with a little time and effort. It's like learning a foreign language. Study, practice, and surround yourself with those who speak it better than you do, and you will master it more quickly. We already have all the hardware and software necessary for intuition. It is not an option on some models, like power windows and anti-lock brakes. I believe intuitive safety comes standard, built into each of us as our birthright. Those who nurture us either encourage our instinctive behaviors or they discourage them, and many discourage right-brain functions such as art, music and intuition. Intuition is like a muscle. It will weaken and atrophy if we choose not to exercise it regularly. By the time we're middle aged, if we have to ask what it is, we've lost it.
People I know well, and those I've just met, sit beside me at the village diner and tell me the same thing - "I don't need OSHA to tell me how to do my job safely." I don't argue that point for long. They only need OSHA to tell them what a safe job looks, smells, tastes, sounds and feels like. Apparently, the other 3,000 workers injured, made ill or killed at work last year at work could have used a little help, but not the ones I'm speaking with in the diner on a given day. They're different. Or are they?
When I ask the men eating lunch in the diner what the word "safe" means, I usually get strange looks. Safety can be a difficult word to define. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines "safe" are as follows: "secure from liability to loss, harm, injury, danger or risk; free from loss of personal security; involving little or no risk of mishap or error; the quality of averting or not causing dangerous situations; the use of a contrivance or device to either prevent injury or avert danger."
The Magic of Intuition"Safety" and "security" are often interchangeable terms. Safety may imply that a person or thing has passed out of dangerous circumstances. Security applies to a reliable state of being about which there is no need to care, fear, worry or be wary. Safety is a particular state of freedom from existing and potential danger in your immediate surroundings. It may also be a feeling of psychological and physical security, knowing harm will not occur in the forms most generally considered possible. Safety and security describe an improbability of an imminent hazard due to personal practices and conditions conducive to preventing them. Safety is a destination best reached by conscientious, careful procedures designed to identify and eliminate all dangers in one's path.
Intuition is vague and experiential concept that most people believe they understand but few can describe in detail. Many of the best hunters I've met rely on their peripheral vision to help them spot their prey. Intuition is something like the mind's peripheral vision. It is defined by Webster's as "direct perception of truth or fact independent of any reasoning process; an immediate apprehension; a keen, quick insight an immediate inherent cognition and perception of an object without having previously seen or experienced the object; pure, untaught, non-inferential knowledge."
There is a little of this magic in even the most analytical pragmatist among us. Intuition's ineffability is its own advertisement. To deny the existence of our intuitive nature defies logic. Without the ability to "sense" thin ice, I believe we would have had a tough time making it all the way to Homo sapiens status.
What if each of us had an organ capable of always detecting the truth when spoken and immediately alerting us to dangerous situations before it's too late to change course? We do. Our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and hands may be able to tell us if someone is lying or if something isn't right about our immediate situation. There are many professional profilers and investigators who are expressly trained to use their senses in order to detect fabrication. Our five senses combine to provide us this sixth service every waking and sleeping moment of our lives. We're just too preoccupied with the "stuff and occupation" of our lives to listen carefully for the signal. Most of us dwell at the atrophied end of this capability. While the intuitive message is always clear, it may at a decibel level too low for our weakened ability to detect it. And, just in case we happen to sense a saber-toothed tiger at the entrance to our cave, we have an instantaneous, hardwired flight-or-fight reaction all ready, complete with just enough adrenaline to get us out of earth's orbit. It's all there inside us, ready to be triggered, even if it's not completely understood.
Key QuestionsSo what does intuition actually have to do with your safety on the job? Everything. I don't mean to suggest that on-the-job safety can be achieved without applying the OSHA standards to our on-site tasks. The employer shall still be knowledgeable in and practice all of these safe work practices developed by OSHA. I've interviewed many accident survivors over many years. To a man or woman, they all admit to the same thing. Just seconds before the explosion, the broken scaffold plank, the toxic gas release, the fall from the roof, the shattered window glass, somehow each knew it was about to happen. To quote one accident victim, he was "instantaneously positive" of the precipitous event but "absolutely unsure" of the results. One worker confided that he actually saw his right foot break through a plank a "split second" before was about to cross it, but he didn't consciously realize it would lead to his eventual fall.
If our intuition has a sufficient power to accumulate, analyze and process data prior to a dangerous event, why can't we access it with more certainty? Why isn't our hazard alarm process more gradual, with a warm-up buzzer all the way up to fire-bell intensity as we encroach on the danger zone? Why isn't the intuitive safety system I've described more user-friendly?
Accessing Our Intuitive PowersSafety is not only about perception, but about what I call "preception" - knowing something before it occurs. Are you able to predict events on the jobsite? In other words, do you have a clear idea of the sequence of your assigned tasks before the shift begins? Are you capable of visualizing yourself, your co-workers, tools, materials and equipment completing the job? If you can imagine every detail of the operation, you can predict the consequences of your action in as much detail. It can be as much about letting it occur as making it happen once you have the day's sequences in your mind. The more you attempt this exercise, the better the results. How do you get to a hundred chin-ups? One at a time.
Sensing the AlarmAs we approach a dangerous act or condition, why doesn't our intuitive alarm system increase with proximity to danger? Perhaps it does, but we just don't realize it. I once drove tractor-trailer a million miles or more cross-country. Every time I headed either east or west I would visualize my route depending on my destination, number of drops, the weather, road construction, the characteristics of my load, my delivery time, as well as where I just felt like driving. Much of this involved consciously learning from experience, but I realized my intuition was always at work. I would often sense problems before they occurred and adjust my driving accordingly.
For instance, sometimes I'd get a brief, low-level, but clear instinctive feeling when someone ahead of me was about to change lanes just in time to prepare for it. Ignore the message, and I'd suddenly be all air horn and brakes. After the adrenaline stopped pumping, I'd calm down and admit to myself I knew it was going to happen just that way. After I'd ignored the intuition to slow down and make room for this future event, I was still making physical micro-adjustments in order to downshift, steer, hit the air horn cable and trolley brake lever all at once. I still knew it was about to happen, but I'd moved out of the yellow "caution" zone into a red alert without a conscious thought about it.
Now, a life spent alone in a 6-foot by 8-foot box hurtling down the road immediately followed by 40 tons is not quite the same as working on a 10-man framing crew in a housing development, but the basic alarm is still operational. And it still varies in tone, allowing for increasingly desperate evasive actions as the event draws near. We just have to pay attention to the message. As drivers, we all take special precautions as the school buses head home, we see children in Halloween costumes or the car in front of us starts to fishtail. Why don't we exercise the same precautions when we see an unsecured extension ladder or a lead cord in a puddle? I have gotten signals late, but the alarm was so violent that I grabbed the scaffold frame to keep from falling as my legs refused to step onto the rotten plank just ahead. Or else I jumped back from a guardrail electrified by a lead cord just before reaching for it. No explanation is required when the horn's that loud.
Becoming Intuitive ExpertsYou improve your intuitive instincts the same way you get to Carnegie Hall ... practice, practice, practice. The most practical way to get our safety instincts to be more "user friendly" is to use them regularly. The Job Safety Analysis (JSA) is that three-column document I encourage everyone to use in their daily work. It's the best (and least expensive) safety tool any of us has at our disposal. Rather than occupying our hands like most tools, it belongs in our head. It first requires that we study the phases and the steps necessary to complete our jobs in a systematic and timely fashion. That in itself is a genuine defensive plan. Study your playbook until you know every play that could be called.
Next, look for the individual hazards in each step. You couldn't possibly see all the traffic trouble spots by flying over New York City, but if you've got a route planned out and stops scheduled, you can anticipate your moves to avoid potential bottlenecks. Last, it requires action on our part to make all the corrections necessary to avoid hazardous exposures for just one shift. We don't have to panic and try to anticipate hazards and implement controls for the next 24 months, just the next 24 hours will be enough to start. In other words, know what your assigned tasks will actually require you to do this shift; inspect your work site looking for telltale traps and snares; organize and inspect your tools and materials, removing anything defective or dangerous; communicate with your co-workers and know when, where, how, what and even why, they're going to be doing things around you.
You become what you learn and learn what you become. Instead of setting yourself up to get injured by intentionally ignoring the railroad crossing, learn where all the crossings are today, what time of the day the trains are expected to pass through and how to detect the train's arrival. Know what to do if you and the train are about to co-occupy the same space and time. Before long, you'll be detecting the railroad crossing miles before you actually arrive at it. Intuition may be natural, but its perfection is a learned response.
Trust Your InstinctsLet me make this perfectly clear. I'm not a psychic. Not even close. I'm just a project manager who's still learning from his mistakes. I've seen my share of bad days and had a few close calls in 40 years on the job. I've lost too many friends to stupid mistakes on the job and don't intend to lose any more. I study the OSHA standards every day and believe they're simply the best tools we have "to protect ourselves, from ourselves, in spite of ourselves." I believe in zero accidents, 30 million man-hours without a recordable injury and everyone going home intact in their vehicles, not body bags. Despite or because of all this, I believe in intuitive safety.
Someone once told me, "This safety stuff you teach is all well and good, but when it's your time to go, it's your time to go." You'll get no argument from me. But I'll be the last one who believes you're "meant to go" anytime before you retire. That's just the way I'm wired. Dying at work is just the wrong way for anyone to go.
Every one of the workplace accidents I've seen, heard and investigated were caused by an unsafe act or an unsafe condition. All were 100 percent preventable. I have a $100 bill to give to the first person who can describe any on-the-job accident that was 100 percent unavoidable and had absolutely no stupidity involved. As of this date, no one's ever come close to owning that $100.
Practicing intuitive safety is not as peculiar as it may sound. It means regularly and methodically going through the observation, action and verification JSA process, practicing the moves. It means remaining in the present when everything you're attempting to complete in a single shift has your thinking days ahead. It means stepping back every once in a while to look around your jobsite with open eyes and a quiet mind. Whenever I teach scaffold class, I encourage the competent person to climb off, stand back and take a look once in awhile. You'd be amazed at the obvious things we've discovered doing this. It only takes one worker on my projects to tell me "something doesn't feel right," and we'll all immediately stop whatever we were doing and take the time to look closely around the site. Whenever we do this, we often find a dangerous situation was developing as several unaware workers were simply doing their jobs. We once found a welder about to strike an arc a few yards downwind from a painter who was generating concentrated fumes of methyl-ethyl ketone. So don't feel awkward when your intuition alarms. Instead, ask yourself, "What is going on around me right at this moment?"
Your intuition may actually prevent a serious accident someday. Our goal is to arrive home in approximately the same condition we left it - just a little older and wiser.