Your First Reaction

This week’s Safety Topic is reprinted from the April 2002 issue of Rock Products magazine. The author is Randy K. Logsdon, Manager, Safety and Health, Vulcan Materials Co. Midwest Division

Anyone who has had to learn a new and difficult task understands the importance of practice. Repetition makes the task easier to duplicate each successive time. Eventually the steps become automatic. We are told practice makes perfect.

Scott Geller, an expert on behavior-based safety, suggests that practice does not make perfect— rather, practice makes permanent. If we learn and practice unsafe procedures, those steps will likely become permanent or automatic. Coaches are constantly looking for performance flaws that athletes practice. A pitching coach will study a pitchers wind-up, stretch, arm motion, release and follow through. I recently tested a group of 30 people on applying the three-point contact rule for climbing a ladder. (The three-point rule requires three points of secure contact at all times when ascending or descending ladders.) Although I explained the concept and demonstrated the technique, 28 of the 30 moved an arm and a leg at the same time. The permanence, a result of years of practice, is so prominent that even in a conscious test situation most were unable to perform the skill as instructed. The way to correct an undesirable action is to consciously practice the correct action until it replaces the old action as permanent. Anyone who battles a consistent slice on the golf course understands the difficulty in accomplishing such a change. So, will learning proper steps for a task and practicing those steps correctly ensure safety? Not necessarily. Normally we practice the routine steps for a task under relatively safe, controlled conditions. We should also prepare for the unexpected emergency. Under carefully controlled conditions, some emergency situations can be simulated. But should an emergency occur, your initial reaction will likely be your first opportunity to react correctly to save your own life. You may get only one chance.

Recently, a flight attendant handed me a soft drink and a cup of ice. Along with the cup she handed me a cocktail napkin. I reached for the cup and the napkin with my right hand, but grasped only the cup. The napkin began to fall. Quickly, with my left hand, I caught the napkin in midair—nearly spilling the drink on another passenger. If the napkin had fallen to the floor, no harm would have been done—yet, I reacted suddenly and instinctively as if such an outcome would be catastrophic. Although I was proud of my ability to catch the napkin without spilling the beverage, the scenario could easily have resulted in a spill, a stain and an angry traveler in my row. I apologized to the young lady who would most likely have been the victim of the spill. Her reply was nonchalant: “it’s just human nature.”

Human nature or not, it was an instinctive response that was incorrect. The incorrect response of a truck driver who feels his back wheels sink as he dumps on a stockpile could be much more devastating. Even the reaction of someone climbing a ladder may end in disaster when a hand or foot slips. Although you may not be able to practice your reactions to these or dozens of other emergency scenarios, you can prepare for them mentally. You can identify the likely risks for a given situation and develop a reactive strategy in your mind. Share the strategies. Others may be able to benefit from or help optimize your process. Mentally practice the steps until you know exactly how to react to each potential emergency. Then, you will likely respond the right way the first time.

The theme here has been a recurring one in these Safety Topics: Think about what is going on around you and anticipate the possibilities.