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Week of 13 April 2020: Lurking Dangers

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If there is one thing the current COVID-19 crisis should teach us, if taken as an allegorical experience, is that dangers affecting safety are not always out in the open.

I've told this story many times before, but perhaps you have not heard it.

Just about 36 years ago, half a lifetime from where I am now, I was working a major rebuild--it went on for a biblical length of time--40 days. I was managing the night shift. One night, the construction contractor's manager, my assistant and me were in the basement, beneath the first dryer section, inspecting some work. Being that far towards the wet end, the dryer basement enclosure had only one way out--back towards the dry end.

It was very noisy. There were close to 70 jackhammers and two tractor mounted hoe-rams operating in the building (Construction crew size was over 350 personnel per shift). Of course, in those days we didn't wear hearing protection, and it was likely a good thing that night that we were not.

We were just about a far as we could go into the dead end. We heard a noise overhead, louder than the jackhammers--something was falling through the dryers. I had been leading our little posse as we went into this area. The noise instinctively motivated us to turn around and head towards the dry end. This put me, suddenly, at the back of our group.

The other two almost pushed off me to get their speed up. I was caught across the back of my legs, just below the knee, by a 4 x 4 as I failed to escape in time. There were two 4 x 4's and a couple of sheets of plywood that came down through the dryers. Fortunately, I was the only person who was hit.

Well, they made me lie there until the paramedics got to me. One of the paramedics fell and broke a finger in the process. Turns out I was fine, it was just a grazing blow, and I walked it off. Just got a bruise.

Now, you may think this is the end of the story, that the hidden danger came tumbling down through the dryers and old Jim was lucky and got to live to tell the tale. Not so. If you think about it a minute, something had to happen that caused all that construction material to fall through the dryers. Nobody thought to go check on that.

Turns out, that material had been a makeshift platform on top of the top tier of dryers. There had been a construction worker standing on it. The dryers, for whatever reason rolled slightly, causing his platform parts to come down through the dryers. He grabbed some supporting steel above him and was able to almost but not quite get his feet onto a dryer and hung on for dear life. He knew it was about 50 feet from where he was down to the basement floor where his platform landed. He didn't want to make the trip--no parachute.

I mentioned the noise. He yelled and yelled, and no one heard him. We did not bother to think the whole thing through and go investigate. It was about ten minutes before someone happened along and they rescued him.

There were so many things done wrong here, that it would take a whole additional column to list them. There is one point, however, I want to get across to you. When you see an accident, make sure you have seen all the accident. We were so caught up in our own little problems and our miraculous escape from serious injury that we did not investigate the rest of the scene. Maybe I have an excuse--as I said, I was half the age I am now. But not really, I was the responsible manager in charge and if I had had my wits about me, I would have dug deeper to see what was the genesis of the falling timbers.

For safety this week, take this story to heart. When you do see an accident, make sure you see all of it.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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