Lessons From the Lazy River

A few years ago I did some contract work for a large construction and engineering firm. My division specialized in partnering with large manufacturing facilities to perform facility maintenance.

One morning, the Operations Manager at the beverage facility I was working in at the time called in a "huge waterfall" that needed to be contained immediately. Mostly out of sheer curiosity, I tagged along with my Project Manager and two of our mechanical technicians to witness the spectacle. The PM made it clear to us that we were not going to do the work, only survey it and tell the client if we could (contractual stuff, you know).

We arrived at the site and sure enough, it was not simply a waterfall. It was, indeed, a "HUGE" one. The facility had a 40" pipe that snaked throughout the production areas that was used to transport waste process water. They called it the Lazy River.

That day the river was not lazy in the least. From what we were told, the leak had been minor up until that morning. In their desire to not halt production, someone had attempted to patch the pipe with cardboard and duct tape (literally). That hadn't worked at all and the waterfall was now spewing all over the room. As we approached, the technicians and I began assessing the issue to figure out how we might accomplish the task. I was there for Safety oversight, of course, so I began identifying all of the potential risks I could see along with one of the technicians.

"That pipe right underneath the leak is asbestos," he said. "Is that a problem?" I looked it over and offhandedly made a joke. "No, it's already wet. Shouldn't be an issue." We both chuckled but then continued assessing the risks, to include the asbestos pipe. In the end, however, our company was not asked to assist with the fix. The client decided to take care of it on their own and the commotion died down shortly after.

The next day I was called in to Human Resources. There I was informed that some anonymous employee(s) had reported that I had knowingly exposed our associates to asbestos hazards. Once I collected myself and cooled down from my immediate angry response to that false accusation, I was cleared of the charge. There were quite a few life lessons that I took away from that episode, but in particular, the event left me with two profound safety lessons.

  • 1st: What you say as a Safety & Health Practitioner is INCREDIBLY important.
  • 2nd: We must educate employees about the difference between a RISK and a HAZARD.

That first lesson doesn't need much explanation. It should go without saying, but remember, we Safety Practitioners run the risk of misinterpretation, misrepresentation, or just outright falsehood every time we open our mouths. Once it occurs, it doesn't matter why your words are not understood, so don't get too wrapped up in that. The key is ensuring that your message is clear, consistent, and correct. That's not to say you can't make a mistake, but we should be making every reasonable effort to send the right message. It's a burden that should never be taken lightly because people are trusting us to make responsible decisions that will affect their very lives. Humor has its place, just be sure it stays where it should (and who you say it to).

The second lesson is a bit more nuanced. As I just mentioned, safety affects people's lives. So, often discussions about safety are inherently emotional. Most would agree that people tend not to make great decisions when our emotions are heightened, so allowing emotion to govern worker safety is a flawed strategy. I've witnessed it throughout my career, however. Even by some who are well experienced and competent safety professionals. The scenario can play out anywhere, but we've all likely witnessed at least one safety inspection gone awry where the "inspector" finds some egregious violation or hazard and comes unglued. I would tend to refer them back to lesson #1 in those cases and remind them that what they say matters. In my experience, workers don't respond well to righteous indignation.

We should consider one essential function of our jobs as Safety Practitioners to be removing the emotion from the safety discussion. That will help employees distinguish between what is a hazard and what is a risk (to them personally). If we are not good at that task, we run the risk of allowing people to get "spun up" about things that are not likely to cause them harm while entirely missing the things that will. Let me use the Lazy River story to illustrate that.

If my organization had taken on that repair job, we would have been working at a height of about 15 feet in very close quarters. While it's true that there was an asbestos pipe near the work, it was fully intact (not in a friable state) and scaffold could easily have been erected that would have isolated the workers from it. So in this case, though asbestos certainly has hazards associated with it, it would not have posed a risk of exposure.

On the other hand, there was an exposed, energized electrical junction box that was directly beneath the waterfall. There would have been no way to avoid being near it, or probably even touching it. No one noticed it except me because they were too excited about the scary asbestos pipe. That was the real risk.

The Safety field is full of meaningful lessons like these every day. Most are not life-altering lessons, but they are things that need to be shared. Looking at the work world through an objective lens goes a long way toward rationally identifying hazards at a work site, then deliberately managing them based on the risks associated. We should always strive to attack the risks that matter most without getting lost in a sea of hazards. Our people will be better, and safer, when we do.

Jason Maldonado ([email protected]) is a Certified Safety Professional and SMS with 15 years of varied industry experience. Currently employed by Leprino Foods, he is the safety manager at a mozzarella factory that employs nearly 700 people.

Posted on Mar 22, 2019