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7 Things Natural Disaster Teaches Us About Safety

We do not need to limit our learning opportunities to our own mistakes; we can examine other experiences for lessons to improve our own understanding, expectations and practices.

We do not need to limit our learning opportunities to our own mistakes; we can examine other experiences for lessons to improve our own understanding, expectations and practices.

The city where I live is currently assaulted by wildfire. It’s been a busy week helping friends, strangers, and firefighters in the miniscule ways I can and still trying to keep up with business as usual or unusual. So, I confess that local events that dominate my attention inspire the thoughts that I would share in this week’s post.

The fire about which I speak is named the Waldo Canyon fire, outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the U.S.A. At the time of this writing it has been burning for 6 days, and this evening the mayor of the city announced that 346 homes have been destroyed on the western edge of the city. Considering that tens of thousands of homes were in direct proximity to the flames, that number should garner a sigh of relief. It still makes this fire the most destructive in Colorado history, however.

In all, more than 1,000 firefighters have been engaged and are currently, actively fighting the blaze. That does not account for the other law enforcement, paramedics, aircraft pilots, support personnel, and reserve personnel that have been engaged and borrowed from every city, town, and village within an hour’s drive of my own. Also, approximately 32,000 citizens have been safely evacuated from homes.

I won’t replay the entire saga for you, though it is very exciting to those of us affected. I only wish to provide a few facts to lay a backdrop for today’s discussion. The last detail to mention is that in 6 days, and with tens-of-thousands of people evacuated, and thousands of emergency personnel engaged with fighting a fire that displays unprecedented and unpredictable behavior, no injuries have been reported. None. Amazing.

I admit that in asking myself the question “Is there something about this event that I can take away and share with readers?” I found a great many thoughts formulating in my mind. So, with a safety theme to pull a few of them together, here is a handful of realizations that I would share with everyone.

1. Policy Does Not Beget Safety

Just because we make it policy to follow safety rules or procedures, such does not make people safe by itself. Policy is necessary, but it is just a set of rules. Our rules cannot possibly address every situation, or prevent every accident.

Safety of personnel is more a result of safe behavior than it is safe rules. Continuous, unrelenting awareness and attention to threat are much more effective than policy. Create an environment where personnel are expected and encouraged to examine everything around them and recommend safer practices. Coincident with that must be an environment where people are afforded the authority to make changes according to those recommendations without red tape or multiple requests for permission.

The Governor of Colorado instituted a fire ban weeks before the Waldo Canyon fire broke out. Many counties enacted even stricter fire bans. Doing so didn’t prevent foolish and careless behavior on the part of people triggering several of the many fires going on in the state right now. Sometimes accidents happen even when we are careful.

2. Prevention is the Best Strategy

I know that this idea is one we have all heard and probably repeated countless times. However, let’s talk about how we can enable preventative behavior. Specifically, I’ll address two ideas.

  • Make safe behavior easy.
  • Inspire safe attitude.

Go out today and pick any operation of your choice with the potential to cause injury or otherwise incur damage or expense. Watch the process and the operation. Does safe operation require more discipline and effort than unsafe operation? Often times this is the case.

Actively seek and find these cases and reverse them. Make it easier to be safe than to be unsafe. Many manufacturing machines are designed with this strategy in mind. It takes effort to bypass a guard or it requires a conscious action to trigger the machine and that action requires hands and feet to be touching buttons or petals in safe locations.

Look beyond machines. Look at all of your procedures and processes for work that have the potential for injury or damage. Make preventative behavior automatic or easier than risky behavior.

Similarly, actively, vehemently, ruthlessly stamp out any attitude that states or implies that the safe way is too difficult or annoying. Make saying so, acting so, or even thinking so clearly unacceptable. Attitudes catch like common colds. Inspire an attitude that safety is the absolute ruler of the environment and that even the CEO or President or Owner must bow to it. Speaking out against it is blasphemy.

If you need some inspiration, consider this. Right now, in Colorado Springs, 32,000 people evacuated their homes and 1000 firefighters are battling a very unpredictably behaved wildfire in very difficult terrain. Thousands of emergency personnel are rushing all over the countryside and city in support, and dozens of aircraft are dodging each other while flying through canyons filled with smoke, thermals created by raging blazes, and winds that are unfriendly at best. So far no one has been injured. If such can be done, you and your personnel can find a way to do your job safely.

3. Decisiveness is the Best Response

If you or any of your personnel perceive a threat building, do not hesitate; do not debate the most optimized resolution. Act immediately in favor of safety to personnel and equipment. Ensure safety first. Then work out a plan to mitigate or eliminate the building threat.

Threats can come in many, many forms. It may be something as mundane as supplies stacked too high, or water on the floor. It may be environmental, such as heat in the facility because of weather, energy conservation practices, or equipment that is not operating optimally.

Threats can also be immediate and surprising. A cable might suddenly fray, a tool might break, or a machine might jam. Flooding might occur, or an executive team and all of its entourage might suddenly take a tour.

This is where the awareness discussed in the first point returns to the plan. We must always be alert and aware so that we can perceive the threat building and act before the problem manifests. We must also enable decisiveness.

While you are walking processes and operations today, ask the question, “If a threat manifested here, who would make the call to secure the area and address the threat?” If that person is not readily obvious, and if that person is not standing right there, you have a problem.

Make sure that everyone knows who has the authority to make the safety call in every area or aspect of your organization. If that authority is not located at the point of potential threat, the wrong person is identified. We are not decisive enough when the person to make the decision is not on the scene. Even the act of summoning someone to the manufacturing floor or making a phone call wastes too much time or invites too much failure of communication. Also, make sure that when that authority leaves the area that it is automatically delegated to another and that everyone knows it.

4. Preparedness is the Best Damage Control

In the event of a treat or an actual safety problem, how prepared is your organization? Does everyone know exactly what to do? Do they have the right equipment on hand? Do they know how to use it? Do they know each other and how to coordinate? Have they practiced?

Examine a few disasters of recent or historical note. Colorado Springs has faced a terrible threat and much damage with astounding efficiency, in my opinion and observation, and without injury. Clearly, they have learned to improve communication and coordination between various public service agencies since 911 when we learned just how unprepared we were in the U. S. to deal with catastrophe. Compare that preparedness with a recent cruise liner that crashed.

When the Costa Concordia wrecked, the captain and crew were not prepared and did not know how to deal with the situation. As a result, we all bemoaned and ridiculed the whole event both for the fact that it could have been avoided with safer behavior and it could have been better handled with fewer injuries or casualties. Similarly, everything that we observe as wrong that happened with the Costa Concordia happened against policy (see note 1. one above).

It is not enough to make rules, set procedures, and make annual training mandatory. We must practice and rehearse. We must do it regularly. As part of that, we must maintain our supplies and equipment. Do not let the regular activities become mundane. Take your fire drills and first-aid certification renewals very, very seriously.

Practicing and rehearsing seriously does three things. First, it keeps your personnel sharp. Second, it communicates that attitude that safety is king (see note 2. above). Third, it creates an opportunity for personnel to assess procedures and recommend improvements (see notes 1. above and 6. below). Be prepared at all times. Don’t think about “if,” take an attitude of “when.”

5. Information and Communication are Our Best Weapons

Whether we are preventing safety issues or responding to threats or problems, our ability to perceive the threat, organize a preventative measure or response, and share our lessons with everyone else relies on our ability to create information and communicate it. Intelligence is essential.

As you walk your processes and operations today, ask personnel what they know about the procedures, responses, authorities or threats concerning those operations. Ask them whom they tell if they observe a threat or problem. Ask them what they would say.

If personnel don’t know about procedures or policy, there is a communication breakdown. If they don’t know who to consult or who has authority, or that they have authority, there is a communication problem. If the answer to the last question is, “Well, I guess I would tell that guy there that the thingy is a little out of whack and it might cause stuff to go bad,” then perhaps a little rehearsal of vocabulary and process and procedure is in order.

The words we use are a strong indicator of our preparedness and our ability to communicate. If we don’t know what things are called, or the proper terms for situations, we are clearly not well versed in procedure or the operation. When everyone can snap off their answers with the same jargon, we know our teams are rehearsed and that in an emergency they are capable of communicating efficiently.

Obviously, we must make sure that we all know to whom to communicate, what to communicate, and how to find and reach those people. Simple things like putting authority on the spot are important. When phone calls are necessary, display the names, numbers, and authorities on the phone so no additional time is wasted.

6. Learn from Everything and Everyone

Do not become secure in the knowledge that you and your organization are ready or that you are safe. Instead, remain positive by patting yourself and your groups on the back for making yourself better and safer, then go forth and try to do it again.

The first attitude breeds an environment of forgetting about safety. The second attitude creates that environment mentioned above where everyone is thinking about safety always. Get in the habit of examining every near miss or event in detail and planning for better measures in the future.

Every time there is a process audit, finish the audit and then ask personnel how it could be improved or made safer. Put a reminder in your calendar. Every month, assess how many safety evaluations or improvements in which you participated or executed. If the answer is none, schedule a review and evaluation of something you haven’t touched in a while and do it proactively.

Any time that your organization experiences an event, do a lessons-learned examination and make improvements and changes. Do the same every time some other group or organization experiences an event. Organizations do benchmark studies of others for the sake of improving product development, marketing, production, or logistical practices. Do one on safety practices.

7. Safety is an Everywhere and Always Concern

Concern and awareness for safety does not just belong on the production floor or at work. Safety is a concern at work, at home, and at play. Certainly, of the dozen or more wildfires burning in Colorado this month, people at play triggered the ones not caused by natural occurrences.

Take the thought process one step further. The effects of unsafe behavior also carry beyond the production floor and the work place. If we are injured, that injury persists and affects every aspect of our lives. It affects our families, our relationships, our ability to produce income, and our self-esteem and self-image. Those are serious things, are they not? Should we not then take our safety seriously, always?

Give some thought to your own business practices this week. Consider not only your policies, but your behaviors and attitudes. Make some changes if you see opportunity, then do it again next month. Just don’t stop improving.

I mentioned above the obvious improvement in coordination among public services since 911. Though, my family and home are not in one of the evacuation zones for the fire, I happened to be helping a friend and colleague on Tuesday when the evacuation orders for much of the west side went out. I got to participate with the rest of the evacuees.

Both at the time, and in reflection, I am impressed at the decisiveness, preparedness, and coordination of the local authorities and public services. The call to prepare to evacuate went out half-an-hour before the fire jumped a major defense and raced across miles of mountainside toward the city. The minute the fire did jump the defenses, the call to evacuate was issued (observation of potential threat, decisive action, and excellent communication).

When the call went out, local law enforcement immediately moved into position to direct traffic. There were no gaps in their posts, there was no fumbling over who should be where. They simply appeared and took care of business. Likewise, as we were all leaving, caravans of public transportation vehicles were moving in to assist and paramedics were stationing at strategic locations (preparedness and coordination). I was astounded at the efficient coordination of police, fire, paramedics, county sheriff, utilities, media, and public transportation resources.

In fact the only limit I observed to efficient evacuation and response was the road system itself and the avenues of egress to and from that portion of town. I’ve been part of numerous business responses to emergencies. Though they were of much smaller scale and lesser threat to personnel and property, none of them were remotely so well coordinated or addressed. It is with that experience in mind that I share the observations above.

Don’t wait for disaster to strike to re-evaluate your safety-mindedness. In fact, don’t wait at all. Evaluate it today. Assess every aspect of it including your policies, preparedness, decisiveness, communications, attitudes, and your continuous improvement thereof. Take lessons from every opportunity, including your own near misses, natural disasters, or Web posts.

Stay wise, friends.

If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at