Of all the attitudes towards hazards faced in the workplace, perhaps the most baffling is the lack of concern over the intrinsic dangers of working at height without proper PPE and safety precautions.

Why is it baffling? Well, despite the relatively low number of incidence of falls from height it is still consistently one of the ‘fatal five’ – the injuries responsible for the greatest number of workplace fatalities.

Let’s put this into perspective. Let’s say, and bear with me on this, that every cup of tea you drink has the potential to kill you in the most agonising way. For the sake of this example, let’s also say that this tea isn’t particularly flavourful or enjoyable – it doesn’t taste particularly bad or good; it’s just a mediocre cup of tea that you have more out of habit than because of any driving desire to drink it. The chances are remote that you will be killed by this tea – heck, you drink it everyday and it hasn’t killed you yet, so you don’t see any reason to change. Now let’s say that adding a cube of sugar to your tea will remove all but the most minute chance that this tea will harm you. In this scenario you’d rather go without the sugar, but it’s right there and no inconvenience, you just don’t love it. Now, knowing all this, do you add the cube? See where I’m going with this?

Some people hate tea with sugar, others are diabetic and can’t have the sugar, some will only ingest sugar cubes if they’re delivered by a doctor and laced with the vaccine for Polio to literally help the medicine go down, and others are just too lazy to get up and get the sugar. Most add sugar and force down some tea. And yet, inexplicably, a considerable number of people drink the bland tea and die horribly.

This isn’t really an article about tea, sugar, or come to think of it even necessarily fixated on – despite my opening gambit – height safety.

I’ve written on this topic previously for this publication, and reaffirm that gravity is a merciless, unforgiving adversary. If you fall from sufficient height you will die and likely as not they will retrieve your shattered corpse with a shovel, a bucket, and a sponge. It’s an ugly scene and easily preventable, save for the people who whine about the inconvenience of putting on a harness or keeping three points of contact on a ladder.

If you can’t do your job using the PPE or administrative controls you don’t just continue to do the job unprotected: you use your brains to find a way to mitigate the risks. If the job can’t be done safely then it can’t be done at all. Trust me when I tell you that the jobs that cannot – with sufficient planning and ingenuity – be performed safely, are rare if not non-existent.

“a colleague of mine once snarled in frustration that safety came down to two things: risk tolerance and decision rights”

So if this article isn’t purely about working at heights, what else is it about? Well, I’m glad you asked. A colleague of mine once snarled in frustration that “safety came down to two things: risk tolerance and decision rights.” He was right, and alongside height safety, that’s what I wanted to talk about.

Risk tolerance

I live very near to the city of Detroit, once heralded as the murder capital of the world until we lost the title to New Orleans. We’re rumoured to have invented White Flight, Car Jacking, and Crack Cocaine; needless to say my risk tolerance is much higher than if I lived in a city like Dayton, Ohio. I grew up in the decaying buildings turned punk clubs so Detroit doesn’t scare me, but I have become something of an urban Sherpa guiding my white suburban friends through the culturally rich enclaves of a city that is over 80% African American. I can remember suggesting that people gather for a drink for my birthday at a Detroit garden party. A solid 80% declined, not even bothering to concoct an excuse. It was Detroit, and their risk tolerance wasn’t high enough to travel to the city and commemorate a perpetual trouble-maker who didn’t seem to care if he was killed.

So, when it comes to working at height, we all have a certain degree of risk tolerance – the amount of danger to which we are willing to subject ourselves for a given reward. When it comes to Detroit, I have a high-risk tolerance and even though the city is far safer than when I started hanging out there some 40 years ago, I still have uptight friends who just won’t go into the city. I remember being a guide to a husband-and-wife friend of mine to Detroit’s Eastern Market. They were apprehensive on the first trip, less so the second, and relatively soon their risk tolerance had increased to the point where they now routinely shop there.

When someone is working, they assess the situation and proceed according to their risk tolerance. If, for example, the person has performed work at heights many times without adequate protection and suffers no adverse effects, his or her risk tolerance increases and the individual is highly likely to take incrementally increasing risks until he or she has a near miss or falls and suffers a serious, debilitating injury, or dies outright.

It doesn’t matter who you are, you have a certain degree of risk tolerance, which brings us neatly to the other element of safety my colleague cited.

Decision rights

No process, no policy, no past practice can cover every contingency that may arise in the completion of a task. It is inconceivable that a worker would ask permission every time a job requires a decision so we give workers (usually informally) the right to use their own judgment to solve a problem. Unfortunately, unless we establish limits as to the extent to which the worker can improvise, we essentially give the worker carte blanc, and that can be deadly.

Decision rights can be tough to define and articulate. Does the worker have the right to use a ratchet instead of a standard wrench? Probably. Does the worker have the right not to wear a harness when working at heights because he’s only going to be up there for a minute? Absolutely not. So where is the line? In the case of safety, the only acceptable decision rights any worker has are: to violate a safety rule when following it would create a greater danger. For example, driving when the traffic flow is 15–20 kph over the speed limit. You can obstinately refuse to exceed the speed limit and increase the risk of injury to yourself or others or you can keep up with the flow of traffic. Depending on where you live you may or may not have this decision right, but the opposite is certainly true – if the road conditions prevent you from safely operating your vehicle you are, in most jurisdictions, required to slow your rate of speed even if it falls below the minimum speed required by law.

In general, the worker has the decision rights to violate a safety rule if the worker mitigates the risk of violating the rule with some other form of protection. For example if there are no anchor points at the location where the worker is working at height, or if the worker doesn’t have a properly fitted harness, protective netting can be installed below the worker so that if he or she does fall, the fall isn’t injurious.

All workers have the right to exercise Stop Work Authority. Stop Work Authority allows the worker to temporarily cease the operation of a task if the worker believes the work is being performed unsafely. Stop Work Authority is largely misunderstood; it doesn’t mean you don’t do the work and all head to the pub for a pint, but it does mean that the work is paused long enough to rethink and verify the safety of the operation as it is currently being conducted.

Convergence

Sometimes people’s risk tolerance causes them to inappropriately ignore a safety regulation or protocol.

“I’m only going to be up there a minute” are some of the most frequent last words of victims of fall from height fatalities. While people know only too well the rarified situations where they have the authority to violate the safety protocols, their risk tolerance enables them to flagrantly violate the rule.

“I’m only going to be up there a minute” are some of the most frequent last words victims of fall from height fatalities”

Let’s not lay all of this off onto frontline and maintenance workers. In more cases than I can count, foreman, managers, and team leaders all direct workers into the line of fire by exceeding their decision rights. I know of a case where a manufacturing executive was touring a plant when he noticed some workers working at height without harnesses. He pointed it out to the supervisor and instead of saying “bring them down and discipline them immediately” (as well as disciplining their supervisor) he opted for “when they are done with that job up there I want them all put on two weeks unpaid disciplinary suspension.” And the worst part is that I don’t even think the irony of using the word suspension for a tie-off violation was intentional on his part.

Embedding risk tolerance

I used to work for one of the Big Three (now Big 2 ½ ) auto companies and I installed the hardware to the bottoms of the seats. Around 850 times in an eight-hour shift. I used to boast that I screwed for a living and I came home sore (I still think that’s funny some 32 years later, despite strong assurances that it is not). The job wasn’t brainless. If I was assembling one model I would put on part A and drive three self-starting bolts, but if it was another model I would put on part B and drive two bolts. Installing part A was difficult because it required using two guns and since I was only allowed one air hose it meant that I had to switch guns, drive one bolt to a maximum torque of 10-15 psi, then switch to the other gun and drive two bolts at a torque of 20-25 psi. And it gets worse: the self-starting bolts required torque of 12 psi and the gun that was required would drive bolts from 10-15 psi, meaning that often as not I could not get the bolt to catch and when I did it was only with great difficulty.

“decision rights can be situational; the only absolute right a worker has is Stop Work Authority”

The person who trained me told me to just use the big gun and back it off a bit once it got started. So that’s what I did but seldom – if ever – successfully. The quality inspector was a meek man who would check a random sample of my work and it never passed muster. He didn’t care, my boss didn’t care, so I didn’t care. Engineer after engineer would come up and tell me that my bolts were too tight (and probably thought my screws were too loose). I would ask two simple questions:

1.  Will having these bolts on too tight cause the seat to break? and

2.  Will anyone die if I tighten these bolts too tight?

When the parade of engineers would answer “no” to these questions I would resume working out-of-process. 

One day yet another engineer came up and told me that my torques were too high. Emboldened by years of having this conversation play out the same way, I skeptically asked my questions. This time the engineer answered differently. “Will having these bolts on too tight cause the seat to break?” I asked smugly. “Well…no,” he answered, almost sheepishly. Smelling what I mistook for fear I asked impatiently with just a hint of hostility “Will anyone die if I tighten these bolts too tight?” his answer shocked me. “Maybe…” he said a bit hesitantly. He explained that the seat was designed so that if the automobile was in a collision the front bolt would fail first throwing the passenger into the backseat rather toward the windshield. From that point on I used both guns religiously.

So what are the takeaways here?

1.  Risk tolerance is influenced by worker experience and training. I was trained, as many of you have been, without complete information, particularly on why safety protocols are in place and why working in-process is so crucial.

2.  Decision rights can be situational; the only absolute right a worker has is Stop Work Authority.

3.  If you are going to be stupid or stubborn enough to work at height without your safety equipment then put me in your last will and testament, bequeathing to me the lion’s share of your estate, because eventually your luck will run out and a nice posthumous “turns out you were right, Phil” pay-out wouldn’t go amiss.

Stay safe and remember: Read. Learn. Live. Share. Inspire.