Sandy Says: Shortcuts Don’t End Well in Safety

What is it about humans that we often choose shortcuts over our personal safety and the safety of those around us?

For this month’s cover story, I interviewed Dawn Bolstad-Johnson, MPH, CIH, CSP, director of health, safety, environment and quality at PHI Air Medical LLC. Bolstad-Johnson spent nearly 20 years as an industrial hygienist with the Phoenix Fire Department.

One subject we discussed that wasn’t included in the article was shortcuts and their impact on personal safety.

Bolstad-Johnson told me that SCBA weren’t standard equipment for firefighters until approximately 30 years ago and when they were first introduced, firefighters who chose to use them were considered “wimps.”

Bolstad-Johnson said that instead of using the SCBAs, old timers preferred to stick with their heavy beards and mustaches, and congratulated themselves for being “smoke eaters.” They weren’t going to let pesky air monitoring and heavy breathing apparatus slow them down.

Her story reminded me of my first visit to a construction site: Miller Park in Milwaukee in 1998. The visit was significant for a couple of reasons.

One was the amount of time the general contractor spent gloating about “Big Blue,” a Lampson Transi-Lift 1500 Series crane that was in use on the site. I doubt he spoke about members of his family with as much affection as he spoke of that crane. Big Blue, which weighed 2,100 tons and stood 567 feet tall, was one of the largest cranes in the world at the time and the contractor was so proud to have Blue on his job site.

The other reason was that one of the supervisors of the ironworkers, within earshot of the construction manager and safety supervisor, told me that he personally hated wearing fall protection and thought it was for wimps. He reminisced about “dancing on the steel,” which was the practice of working at height without fall protection. He scoffed at younger ironworkers who “demanded” fall protection. I looked at the safety supervisor, Wayne Noel, for his reaction. He shrugged.

Several months later – tragically but perhaps not surprisingly – Big Blue toppled to the ground while lifting a 400-ton piece of the roof, killing three ironworkers who were waiting in the basket of a nearby crane to attach the piece to the rest of the roof. Warning alarms on Blue had been disconnected, a tight deadline had caused crews to try to move massive roof pieces into place during high winds and there were reports that the base of the crane was not structurally sound.

OSHA investigators already had been looking into two previous incidents at the site: A worker fell 60 feet from the roof in May 1999, and several workers were injured when a steel girder being lowered into position collided with an aerial basket in June 1999.

Bolstad-Johnson, when talking about firefighters, noted that it’s human nature to take shortcuts, often placing our own safety at stake. Certainly, that’s true of the ironworkers at Miller Park who felt they could move faster on the steel without wearing fall protection.

“We base our decision-making on past experience,” Bolstad-Johnson told me. “‘I did it that way before and it was fine.’ If there are no health effects, then we continue to take a shortcut.”

This month’s Safety department features news stories about shortcuts that turned out deadly. In one, walls at a building being demolished in Philadelphia collapsed, allegedly because the demolition contractor needed to finish the project on time and removed supporting walls, rather than taking the time to demolish the building a floor at a time. Another story notes the case of a business owner in New Hampshire who was convicted of manslaughter in an explosion that destroyed his business. He allegedly was rushing to finish a job on time so that he could get paid. And finally, Arizona’s State Forestry Division’s “failure to re-evaluate firefighter safety based on continuously observed extreme fire behavior and expected and observed thunderstorm activity resulted in a complete failure to protect employees working downwind of the fire,” said Arizona OSHA of the fire that took the lives of 19 firefighters.

If this issue had a theme, I guess it would be “Shortcuts are deadly.”

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