The Safety Plateau

Psychology, risks and restrictions of working at height

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It seems that all around the world, work at height just will not disappear from the forefront of our minds as safety professionals. Recent statistics published by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive have confirmed that falling from height is still the biggest cause of workplace fatalities – by quite a huge margin.

Despite several active campaigns to improve this tragic situation in the last three to five years, including many prosecutions for contravening Work at Height Regulations even when there have been no injuries or incidents, the number of fatalities and serious injuries from falls from height have remained pretty much the same. It’s the classic plateau that we are unfortunately all too familiar with.

In other areas of the world, including the Middle East and Africa, deaths from falling from height are actually still increasing! So, what can we do? It’s time we tried to think differently in this critical area of safety performance. First, we need to understand exactly why it is that people are still prepared to take unnecessary risk to their lives whilst working at height. We need to get inside the hearts and minds of the people that we are dealing with. The people that we most want to influence in this area.

Just imagine hanging by a thread more than 500m in the air from an iconic building such as Russia’s Lakhta Centre – weighing in at 463m high – or the UK’s Shard which is 310m to the tip. This may sound like the kind of death-defying stunt best performed by Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan, but for many industrial workers and engineers this is their normal Tuesday morning; this is their office and everyday workspace. There are people who actually enjoy working in these kind of environments although of course they are pretty rare, it’s not easy to find people who are prepared to undertake such specialist work. Some would say that they are a rare breed of people.

A spot of klettersteig

A very experienced rock climbing instructor was once addressing a group of around 30 people one morning just before he was about to take them into the Bavarian Alps for a spot of klettersteig (climbing and walking). Now aside from being an engaging adventure training instructor Jonny was a bit of a wannabe psychologist, he used to tell people how he would conduct a simple psychometric test on all of us whilst we were in the mountains.

The mountains will display your true personality type he told us, explaining that people fit into just three personality types once they get into the mountains:

  • “Rock hoppers” leap from rock to rock
  • “Bum shufflers” shuffle along the rock, scared to even stand up
  • “The rest” do exactly as the instructor tells them

We see similar categories of personality types in other areas of safety performance and people’s behaviour when they are at height is a very clear differentiator.

These things tend to be more driven by genetics, the nature element of our personality and not nurture. We believe that there is a way, we just need to understand the psychology and rituals of this kind of performance.

“the chance of death from a 20 metre fall is already around 95%. That’s before we consider landing on uneven ground

Human risk estimation

Our ability as humans to estimate risk is almost laughably bad when compared to research based statistical risk. I’m sure we have all been on flights next to a nervous flyer, maybe you are one yourself, yet this is by far the safest form of travel available even today. Have you ever met someone scared of cars? And of course there’s that shark thing again. Yet there are many more people that die each year whilst just going for a swim in the ocean or playing on the beach. Anyone scared of beaches?

When we think about working at height, our brains love to correlate height with risk, yet in reality, the height you are working at has absolutely no bearing on your likelihood of falling. Equally, if someone is falling from 20 metres or even two metres, they may as well be falling from 200 metres, since the chance of death from a 20 metre fall is already around 95%. That’s before we consider landing on uneven ground. Gravity is a cruel mistress, and once we start to fall, it’s gravity that’s in control of our outcome.

We catastrophically underestimate falls from low to medium heights. This is the kind of work that we all think of as routine and low risk, especially for workers accustomed to work at higher levels. Ironically, its these low to medium heights where we see workers eschewing helmets and other PPE where this equipment will provide its maximum benefit. Furthermore, falls at low to medium height give our bodies much less time to react and try to protect ourselves on landing or opportunities to grab hold of something to slow or steady our fall.

Fortunately, when carried out properly, working at height is actually one of the simplest risks to minimise in the industrial workplace. The use of latch-on harnesses and training on the proper use and placement of equipment associated with work at height is incredibly easy to communicate and for workers to implement. The problem is that very often workers feel constrained, restricted or inhibited by these procedures and devices.

Psychological shift

Do you remember when you were given your very first pager or even mobile phone? Originally, these devices were the preserve of medical professionals and high fliers in business, functioning as a tether for organisations to always have a contact with their employees, to get hold of them 24/7 and keep tabs on them even when working away from company HQ. I can remember in the past how I used to dread my pager going off or getting a call or buzz late at night. Today almost half the people on earth use a mobile phone, why? Because we now use them as devices that set us free, allow us to work flexibly both in terms of time and location and have made our lives infinitely more convenient.

That psychological shift changed those devices from something we had to actively remember to charge and take with us, to devices we now feel physical discomfort to be separated from. If we can make that same paradigm shift with safety procedures and devices whilst working at height, we can effectively reframe this life saving equipment as something that actually gives workers the absolute freedom to do what they are so good at safely. That satisfying click of a carabiner snapping securely onto a rope or metal structure can be used not just as a physical anchor, but also a psychological anchor that triggers an entire state of mind, or schema, that can activate a robust loop of behaviours. This should be our aim for improving and creating such automated behaviours surrounding work at height.

Rotting apples and creativity

These triggers, or cues, are incredibly powerful and for some elite performers they are even necessary in order to do their best work. In a recent interview (Freakonomics Radio Episode 369, Feb 27th 2019) Professor Dean Simonton, a leading expert in creative productivity, describes how the poet Fredrich von Schiller required the smell of rotting apples to trigger his most creative schema, even going to the extent of keeping apples in his desk drawer or taking one with him. Thankfully, Prof Simonton’s cue is a little more familiar and sociable to most of us, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

A familiar cue to most of us will be stepping into our car, pulling the seatbelt across ourselves, hearing the familiar click, the solid thud as we pull the door closed, the smell of the leather seats and the comforting rumble as we turn the key. Instantly, our driving schema is activated which brings with it a different perception of risk, enhanced spatial awareness and cognisance of the responsibility we have in piloting a two-ton lump of metal at high speed.

“even the most abstract of creative talents such as Gaudi, Monet or Dali provided themselves with definite restrictions to work within”

Carte blanche or restriction?

Furthermore, sometimes a little constraint allows us to feel freer and more confident than a blank canvas. Even when the world’s best team athletes like Michael Jordan or Cristiano Ronaldo are given a so called ‘free role’ to express themselves on the field, great managers like Sir Alex Ferguson and Phil Jackson recognise that providing a simple framework and guidelines to work within is actually the best way to maximise the creative abilities of these elite performers. Even the most abstract of creative talents such as Gaudi, Monet or Dali provided themselves with definite restrictions to work within, whether it be the media they used, the limits of what is architecturally possible to build or even a time limitation by which a project must be completed.

In all of these cases, the imposition of a small number of definite rules actually leads to far more productive and creative expressions than would ever have been dreamt up in a complete carte blanche scenario. When we go beyond tired and stale training videos and embrace the modern age of elite performance psychology, we can apply what we have learned from studying the greats and bring it right into our workers Tuesday morning schema.

For our valued colleagues who work at height, we want that harness, safety line and carabiner to activate a schema of freedom that only a constraint can give us. When workers hear the click of latching on, or feel the slight tug of a safety line, we want that to be a reminder that whilst those things are there to protect them, everything else becomes so easy and free. Once it becomes a positive feeling to reposition a ladder, workers no longer feel the desire to over reach, in the same way that a great artist must let part of a painting dry, or wait the weather to clear to continue a masterpiece.

Fundamentally, it is about taking pride in the process and instilling that this will naturally bring about the glory of the outcome. Working at height is perhaps the clearest example of where most senior managers and executives will acknowledge that they simply could not do what these workers consider to be routine. Working at height specialists are exactly that, they are special, the airborne forces of the construction world. Yet, we continue to subject them to the same style and format of training as the rest of our workforce and then act surprised when these people take no heed of these warnings and instructions.

Summary

It’s time to realise that someone who fearlessly pilots a tower crane or washes the windows of a skyscraper is fundamentally not going to be shocked or scared out of bad practices, especially when they receive daily validation that what they are currently doing is effective. There are much better ways of influencing behaviour and managing performance these days and Jonny, our rock climbing instructor understood this perfectly to make sure that all three personality types were well looked after and cared for in the mountains with him.

We need to shift people’s mindset if we are to successfully change their behaviour and habits. Our thoughts and feelings are the precursors to behaviour. Habits can be changed quite quickly if the conditions are set correctly. Think about how quickly habits might change when we visit a country that drives on the opposite side of the road. When we first try to cross the road we look the wrong way and nearly get injured or killed. It takes just three to four times for us to start to change our habits and look the other way. This then becomes our normal behaviour, we have created a new habit. Until we go back home, what happens then? Yes, we need to change back to our old habits again in exactly the same way. So, contrary to popular opinion, some habits can be changed very quickly.