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Seven Things Natural Disaster Teaches Us about Safety, Part 1

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.

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

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 USA. At the time of this writing, it has been burning for six 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 six 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 preventive behavior. Specifically, I’ll address two ideas.

  1. Make safe behavior easy.
  2. Inspire safe attitudes.

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 pedals 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 preventive 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 1,000 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.

What’s your take? Please feel free to leave a comment below. Tune into the Chemical Equipment Daily for part two of this two-part series. If you like what you just read, please find more of Alan’s thoughts at