Speaking Out: A Horse's Ears: The Human-Interest Approach to Behavior-Based Safety

How a horse taught me that safety is lacking without the human approach.

by Denny Anderson

The shift in the workplace environment that occurred after the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 has been described as one that de-emphasized the "human approach" and focused on correcting hazardous working conditions. What others call the human approach, I call the "human-interest approach."

Regardless of what you call it, safety is lacking without it.

Behavior-based safety (BBS) is an approach that focuses on eliminating or minimizing at-risk behaviors that can result in injuries. It sounds simple enough, but it's not.

Workers often perceive it as a way to blame them. Management views it as another safety program. However, if properly handled, BBS can help us all become better-equipped to practice safe behavior.

"A Horse's Ears" may help you view BBS safety from a different perspective. Speaking from first-hand knowledge, it definitely changed mine.

A Horse's Ears

When I was growing up, a boy about my age came to spend the summer months on the neighboring farm. We soon became friends and spent quite a bit of time together riding the neighbor's horses.

Although they were best-suited to farm work, these horses were the country boy's version of a fast car! The horses even taught us one of life's valuable lessons: You tend to develop very painful blisters and raw spots on a certain part of your anatomy that sits right on top of the horse's backbone when you're riding a horse bareback when you're not used to it.

With a leather bridle strapped around the horse's ears and nose, and the metal bits placed in the horse's mouth, an appropriate tug on the bridle straps let the horse know what I wanted it to do - turn right, turn left or stop. However, someone showed my new friend how to make a simple rope halter. He then taught me. We liked the idea of being able to make up our own halter from just a rope, and the horses seem to like the increased freedom and comfort.

We rigged up both horses with the rope halters and set out for another adventure. As we traveled over an old dirt road that was overgrown with brush and tree limbs, I experienced some difficulty in getting the horse to obey my commands.

When we hit the open logging road, those horses really kicked it into "high gear." As we traveled down this narrow dirt road, the trees and brush on the side of the road became a blur.

I pulled hard on the ropes to get the horse to slow down for the gate up ahead. The gate was rather crude - just five or six strands of barbed wire with a few vertical sticks to hold the wire in place. I became concerned when the horse didn't slow down one bit - especially since I was pulling on the ropes as hard as I could - and became really scared when we passed the "point of no return!"

For a split-second, I thought that he might try to jump the gate, but I knew the old horse didn't have the ability to do it. When I fully realized that he wasn't going to jump the fence - and wasn't going to stop - I "blacked out."

As my senses returned, the first thing I remember is looking straight down and seeing ears - the horse's ears. I distinctly remember thinking, "If I am looking straight down - and the horse's ears are sticking up between my legs - then I must be sitting right on top of the horse's head." I was! What a relief! I wasn't dead after all!

I quickly slid back down the horse's neck and found a more suitable place to sit. I was very shaken, but so glad there was no bright light or angels playing harps. Evidently, the horse waited until the last possible moment before deciding to stop.

The Real Lesson

Two lessons were drawn from the incident: "The right tool for the job is the best tool for the job," and "Listen to those subtle hints." However, the story involved much more.

As previously noted, BBS involves changing unsafe behavior - which is easier said than done. Consider E. Scott Geller's comments from his "Psychology of Safety Handbook": "In most organizations, even a minor injury is perceived as a failure. As a result, the victim is sure to avoid discussing inside, personal factors contributing to the mishap."

"A Horse's Ears" was one of the weekly SHE memos that I wrote during 2003. Like the others, it was designed to educate and promote interest in SHE issues by:

  • Putting all of us (workers, supervisors, managers, engineers, chemists and safety professionals) on common ground.
  • Putting the focus of safety where it belongs - on people - not on numbers or statistics.
  • Stressing that safety is Simply A Factor Every Task Yearns (SAFETY) for (both on and off the job).

It was the first memo in which I began to openly discuss the value of honestly looking within to identify personal causes for unsafe behavior and how behavior can be changed for the better. It's a process to which we all can relate. Rather than viewing one's own unsafe behavior as just a failure or stupid mistake, it should be viewed as an excellent learning opportunity.

Simply stated, "A Horse's Ears" is an appeal for all of us to honestly look within ourselves to recognize that the need to change unsafe behavior is not a part of a new safety program - but something that, to some extent, is already a natural part of our lives.

Like it or not, all of us have made more than our share of learning opportunities. It's what we do about them that makes the difference.

Some 40 years later, I still wonder if my bony knees left bruises on that horse's neck.

Denny Anderson is the SHE technologist at the Du Pont plant in La Porte, Texas. He is a graduate of the occupational health and safety program at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas. Contact him at [email protected]

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