The Seven Potentially Deadly Sins of Safety

Though the list is 17 centuries old, experience indicates we in safety have a long way to go to solve them.

THE Seven Deadly Sins (vanity, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth) are more than 17 centuries old but were not codified until the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great. These sins were identified around the same time the Bible was being translated and are found throughout--from Genesis to Revelation.

Their applicability today is contentious given the state of society, but nonetheless they do exist. In 1993, a music television network did a special on the Seven Deadly Sins that involved interviewing some well-known entertainers. These pillars of civilization mostly agreed these particular sins were really not vices and that the list was "dumb." I find such comments rather disheartening.

I started thinking of the things that are often repeated in pre-accident and accident scenarios and came up with my own list of sins. They are:

I. Procrastination
Why do now what you can do much later? All of us have done it: put off doing something intentionally, often with less-than-desirable consequences. We wait until the last minute to do our taxes, pay bills, or even clean out the garage, until it is in such a clutter that we don't know where to start. But what about delaying or waiting too long to fix or repair something that creates or exacerbates a safety hazard? Especially after it has been identified and properly reported as a safety-related issue!

Near the main entrance of a local installation, the traffic light had quit working. It was completely out of service, and during peak periods the traffic was particularly congested. The agency responsible for its repair had been notified but had made no attempt to restore the broken traffic signal. (I later learned it had been out of commission for four days.)

One dark morning during this period, I happened to be exiting the post when I noticed a bus across the street dropping off passengers. I was a little concerned as the throng approached the street to cross, some in the crosswalk and others in the street. They were having a good time talking and laughing, paying little attention to crossing the four-lane and seemingly oblivious to the malfunctioning traffic signal. Just then, a car crested the hill some 60 yards away, traveling much too fast to stop. As he broached the crowd, the driver swerved left, right, then left again, honking his horn wildly and barely missing more than a few in the surprised group. I was amazed no one had been hit--I just knew I was witnessing a tragedy.

Having maneuvered through the pack, the driver kept going, but those in the street got a big chuckle out of it all. Were those laughs of joy I heard or the giggles of nervous relief at having survived near-certain disaster? I made an immediate call to the local authorities and told them what had just happened. Within a short time, a crew was there fixing the light. Why did such a hazard take so long to get mitigated?

II. Ignorance
We have heard this adage "ignorance is bliss" and probably have had a blissful moment or two ourselves. As adults, we have some notion of what will hurt us and what won't. Children, on the other hand, have a rite of passage through learning these things on the road to adulthood. However, we are part of that process and must ensure they know the rules and the proper use of equipment that is designed to protect them from harm.

I was at the scene of a minor traffic accident one afternoon when I noticed several bicyclists approaching the intersection. In the lead was a woman, followed by two children, then another lady and two more children. They had stopped at the junction to appraise the activities surrounding the vehicle accident. The first woman had no bicycle helmet but the children each had helmets draped uselessly over the handlebars of their bikes. I took the opportunity to do my safety thing and approached the woman, asking her why they were not wearing bicycle helmets. Without responding to me, she turned to the children and blurted, "Why aren't you wearing those helmets like mommy told you!" With that, the children quickly donned their helmets, mom smiled, and off the procession went.

I can only imagine what was going through the minds of those youngsters, not the least of which was confusion. One moment their mother actively condoned not wearing the helmets, and the next she publicly chastised them into conformance. The children may have gotten part of the message, albeit a mixed signal, but the woman missed it altogether as she blissfully pedaled away.

III. Complacency
World events have forever changed the way we live and act in our daily lives. Many of the things we took for granted have been inexorably modified, and we are forced to adapt our once-comfortable routines to accommodate the changes. Travelers notice an increased presence of security personnel in airports, train stations, parking lots, and other public venues. Our streets are patrolled more often and by greater numbers of police and security personnel. There is an increase in neighborhood watch groups, and our lives are suddenly less private.

We are on edge and very concerned. We worry at every turn that some evil might lurk in a hidden corner where we least expect it. We plan our activities with greater detail and vary our daily regimen a bit to be a little less predictable. We want to be prepared. But who is the enemy? Whom should we watch out for? There are many fanatical factions in the world that could justifiably be labeled an enemy. However, of all the multifaceted dangers that do present themselves, complacency may well be our biggest adversary.

Complacency is a self-satisfied state of mind oblivious to any danger present. We regularly experience complacency in our personal lives and at our jobs. The key is being cognizant of its existence and the measures we can take to offset any negative consequences. The places we feel the most familiar with can be the most perilous because the menace is not so obvious to us. When we feel confident the environment is stable, we often forget things are subject to change and become precarious in an instant. We must learn to react and interact with our surroundings to ensure we are alert to the possibilities of catastrophe.

Complacency is an attitude that determines how we respond to given situations. How many times have we heard the statement, "We have always done it that way." Of course, it must be right if it has stood the test of time and repetitiveness. Not necessarily true! The very fact it is repeated often can draw us into the complacency trap--we learn to expect proven results until one day, the outcome changes for the worse.

Complacency is a known problem and must be clearly recognized as a causal factor in accidents. There is no cure for complacency, but we must be ever diligent in our prevention efforts. J.C. Ryle so aptly wrote, "Do not suppose that it needs some great scarlet sin to bring you to the pit of destruction. You have only to sit still and do nothing, and you will find yourself there at last."

IV. Cluelessness
Have you ever been around someone who was completely or hopelessly bewildered, unaware, ignorant, or foolish? I once worked with someone so afflicted in an office setting at a university. When asked to complete a task, he would do it willingly, no questions asked. There was one small problem, however: No matter what the project was, it always had to be corrected, or in most cases, done over from scratch.

It was the completion of the act and not the product that he took satisfaction in. To him, getting it done meant it was done--it did not have to be completed with any degree of quality. Even when told of this peculiar practice, he never did comprehend the fact that he created more work for the rest of us. "If you want it done right, do it yourself," certainly rang true in this case.

In studies completed on the clueless, it has been shown they very often believe they are expert or at a level of skill/knowledge far greater than people who maintain some semblance of cluefulness. The problems created by this phenomenon differ from those caused by ignorance. The ignorant can be trained, and once they are armed with the know-how they usually do not repeat the same errors. The clueless, however, cannot be taught and actually will repel any attempt at correction, believing instead that their misguided concepts are most right.

V. Acquiescence
"If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem." Simply going along with something and taking no part in correcting a bad situation is acquiescence.

There exists a predicament involving a few personnel who inhabit civil service positions at U.S. Army flight simulator training facilities worldwide. Most of the positions they occupy are classified as "flight training instructor" or "flight training specialist," and several entail duties that are restricted by regulation to qualified instructor pilots or instrument flight examiners. Paradoxically, many of these personnel are not qualified flight instructors or instrument flight examiners. Others are not qualified in the aircraft related to the flight simulator they "perform" duties in, and some are not even rated aviators. Few, if any, have been administered the evaluations required by regulation to obtain or maintain status as an instructor pilot or instrument flight examiner. In actuality, they are "pseudo-instructors" reaping the advantages of a position but providing no real benefit to the aircrew training programs they are paid to support.

One among them has audaciously assumed the title of "Supervisory Helicopter Flight Instructor Pilot," yet he has never been qualified as a flight instructor for the Army or the Federal Aviation Administration and meets none of the requirements as such. He enjoys full autonomy in "instructing" Army aviators and supervising "training" at two flight training facilities.

These misdeeds were exposed several years ago and have repeatedly been brought to the attention of a number of agencies since. Each time, an "investigation" ensues and the individuals involved are exonerated. The fact is that the problem has not gone away and with the assent of their superiors, it continually gets ignored and covered up. Accepting lower or no standards of regulatory conformance erodes the proficiency of the aircrews being trained and may have catastrophic results if left unimpeded.

This is definitely acquiescence, but because several of these individuals have embellished their qualifications, the people supporting their employment may very well have crossed the line into complicity.

VI. Complicity
Deliberately breaking rules, laws, and regulations is a transgression, and knowingly assisting in the commission of such a wrongful act is complicity.

Those familiar with the Department of Defense know there is strict prohibition against smoking in buildings, vehicles, and aircraft. Smoking is also explicitly prohibited, with few exceptions, at or near (within 50 feet of) the entrance to any building owned, leased, or rented by the federal government. The idea is to prevent having non-smokers pass through the second-hand smoke while going into or coming out of a building. The prohibition also helps reduce the amount of second-hand smoke that enters a building and potentially exposing those inside to its ill effects.

Recently, I noticed a group of people employed at a local headquarters was abusing the Army's regulation (AR 600-63) banning smoking in certain areas. They were congregating directly at the main entrance of this particular building to smoke, and we were all steering around the hazard when entering or exiting the place. I made it known this was a direct violation of regulations and that something needed to be done to correct it. In very short order, signs were placed appropriately and the smokers had moved a distance away to take their breaks. I was pleased that someone had enough gumption to right the wrong and even had the requisite signs placed to emphasize the rule.

You can imagine my chagrin a few weeks later, when the signs had disappeared and the clouds of smoke had reappeared. There they were, stationed at the doorway, knowingly and willfully breaking the regulation.

As I thought about this blatant disregard for policy, it dawned on me the smokers were not alone in their violation and probably did not take the signs down--that had to be approved by someone in authority. Not only were the smokers breaking the rules, key officials had become complicit to it.

This raises two very critical issues: It is a clear signal to the employees and others that the rules can be broken (albeit selectively); and that the boss supports such a practice. Once the rules are broken, the standards will change. Where do we draw the line now?

VII. Stupidity
The comedian Bill Engvall has made a living out of reminding us of the not-so-smart things we do or have done. He quips, "Stupid people should have to wear signs. That way you won't ask them to do anything." The problem is that we all might have to wear these signs on occasion.

There is a tendency to confuse ignorance with stupidity, but actually they have quite different meanings. Ignorance is simply lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified, whereas stupidity is knowing better but doing it anyway.

The clear and undisputed champion of stupid is driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. This offense injures or kills thousands of innocent people each year and causes untold damage to lives and property. It also wreaks havoc on the life of the perpetrator through injury or death, fines or imprisonment, loss of job or family, and living with the guilt of having hurt or killed someone.

What to Do?
I realize the list could be much longer, but I wanted to highlight what I felt were some real issues in our focus on safety. How do we prevent the occurrence of these failings? How do we teach the unteachable? How do we get to those who won't listen?

It is imperative to insist on strict conformance to standards, to castigate non-compliance, and to continue an effort to educate wherever possible. We can hope to make some progress, but we have a long way to go.

This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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