Safety, with a little help from my (invisible) friends

The AP news feed from Punto Fijo, Venezuela, today started with a description of an accountant from the neighborhood of the Amuay refinery that caught fire there. He smelled gas suffused with sulfur as he entered his apartment across the street. A few hours later the refinery blew up, killing at least 39 and injuring another 80. Ironically, the feed said 18 of the victims were soldiers in a station that was there to protect the plant. I guess they weren't looking for an attack from within.

The shaken accountant said, "The first thing I saw was that the apartment didn’t have windows or doors or walls, just a floor and a roof. I don’t know how we survived." He also said that he had smelled the gas before, many times.

It’s an old and universal story. The same instincts that make homo sapiens such an adaptable creature make it easy for us to adjust to workplace hazards that we should not ignore. It's called normalization of deviance. It can lead crews on oil and gas platforms to put up with ridiculously frail shelters and inadequate fire suppression equipment.

How long did it take the public to accept auto seatbelts? Or should I ask, "How long will it take?"

In the workplace, a good way to guard against normalization of deviance can be the use of cross-functional teams to make safety and maintenance tours. If you have a guest from another plant, invite him or her to make a tour with you and your team. Invite your guest to take the gloves off. Then thank your guest if you take a thorough bruising. It may save some lives around the shop.

When I don't have visitors to the plant, I sometimes borrow friends from the past. Some of them bring unique perspectives to the factory situation. Try it, and you’ll find it's amazing how accurately you can recreate the input of your most negative, sardonic friends from the past or from other places.

One of my favorites is Fred, the best machinist I ever met. He worked his way through engineering school running mills, drills, and lathes in his father's shop. Fred died of lung cancer about 10 years ago. Yes, he smoked. He also eschewed the "cadaver clamps" on the seats in his sports car. He said that anyone who experienced a bad wreck in that little rocket would be removed with a fire hose, whether they had been belted in or not. Fred was no stranger to normalization of deviance, but he could also frame a situation in words that would make the rest of us see and remember how ridiculous it was.

I was walking the lines in a refinery a couple of years ago with Fred in tow. He hates ladders, but I needed his eyes and voice to enhance the survey. We were in an area that experiences a lot of copper theft. It didn't take Fred long to offer, "I hope the expletive deleted (ED) who stole the ground straps here had to swim home with them." He was right. Several large electric motors and some tanks that build static charges had the ground straps removed, probably for sale outside the plant.

Later the same day Fred and I saw a worker cutting an old, jutting piece of steel catwalk away with a hand grinder. Unfortunately, he was sending a shower of sparks over some gas lines. "If that ED manages to light a leak, I bet he won’t be ready to blow it out," said Fred.

Maybe I'd have seen the problems without Fred’s help. It's great to have him back for tours, though. His input is still on point, and he keeps me alert. Anyhow the ground straps are back, and an apprentice will be more careful where he grinds. Mission accomplished, Fred.

If the trick helps, please feel free to use it. Meanwhile be careful out there. Use all the eyes you have to find hazards before they find you. And maybe one day my mother-in-law and I will run into you on a housekeeping tour.