Published on: June 4, 2021
Can Our Own Rationalization Put Us At Risk?
After over 20 years of helping our customers solve their most challenging fall protection concerns, I’ve seen a lot of varying attitudes and behaviors when it comes to fall protection and safety in general.
It is in our basic survival instinct to constantly evaluate risk in our lives. Most of these risks we evaluate with our senses. Our experiences then influence our future decision making and our general risk tolerance and our attitude towards safety. We become so accustomed to evaluating risk in our daily lives we convince ourselves we are experts.
Falling is a deeply ingrained fear in most of us for good reason. This fear can be so powerful in some that they can’t physically function properly at heights. Even with all of this instinctual caution there are many examples of real risk people accept every day when in reality the risk is much higher than they think.
Perception Versus Reality
There are thousands of warehouses and distribution centers across America and a large portion of them have flat roofs with hundreds of skylights. Most people have no problem walking on these large roofs, whether the skylight is protected from someone falling through it or not. The reality is these skylights in most cases will not withstand the force of someone stepping or sitting on them. Conversely, if we remove those skylights and leave 300 4’x8’ holes in the roof, you would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to traverse that minefield.
Most of those same buildings have roof edges with little or no parapet. One phenomenon I have repeatedly witnessed is if the roof has no parapet no one will go anywhere near the edge of the roof. However, if there is even a very short parapet, people have no problem walking right up to the edge. OSHA made the minimum height of a guardrail 42” for a reason. Anything less and it won’t do much but trip you while falling over the edge.
A Fall From Any Height Is Dangerous
Let’s say your buddy builds a bridge across the Grand Canyon that is 6’ wide. It has no guardrails, there is a 200’ drop on either side and since your buddy is not very good at construction, there are uneven surfaces and tripping hazards all over it. Would you walk across it? Other than height, how is this different than walking on top of a hopper railcar or tanker truck?
While the bridge fall is certainly a fatal event, a fall from 12’-14’, if not fatal, will most likely result in a lengthy hospital stay along with short or long-term disability. Yet workers still willingly climb on top of trucks and railcars without proper fall protection every day. Sometimes a relatively safe situation can be perceived as dangerous using the same tricks our senses play on us to think something is safe or unsafe.
Many years ago I was providing user training on a roof fall protection system we installed at a local basket ball arena. To access the roof hatch we had to walk across a catwalk to a ladder in the middle of the arena, 150’ above the floor. The ladder was only about 12’ tall, had a cage and was centered in the middle of a relatively wide catwalk. A fall from the ladder might have caused injury but the likely hood of severity was not high.
When our escort attempted to climb the ladder he made the mistake of looking down and his unconscious risk assessor kicked in and physically froze him on the ladder. It took several minutes of reassurance and convincing to get him to finish the climb on to the roof. Of course, once he got on the slippery domed roof of the arena he wandered off to look around not understanding that the risk he now faced was much greater than the risk he faced previously.
Safety Standards Are Written How They Are For A Reason
Safety regulations exist not just to protect workers from injury, but in many cases to protect us from ourselves. We should always listen to our internal risk assessor when the warning bells start to go off, but we should also trust that the standards, training and policies we are provided are written as they are for good reason. To ignore, rationalize or justify not following them might just be one’s own misconception of reality.