The mechanic who cheated death

December 10, 2012  |  Best Practices

the mechanic who cheated deathYears ago, I worked as a mine trainer in an open pit mine. I took my job pretty seriously, because I had previously worked as an equipment operator and a blasting team leader, and I know what one moment's lapse of precaution can do in this unforgiving climate.

I've seen the aftermaths of accidents on several mine sites in my career. It's haunting to see what heavy machinery can do to the human body. That's why it bothers me so much when people don't follow safety procedures or use their personal protective equipment properly. Life is so fragile. But people tend to get complacent, especially when they're doing the same job, day after day, during long 12 hour shifts. Some workers think, "Nothing has happened to me yet, so I must be safe. Nothing will ever happen to me." I have heard many times in my experience as a trainer: "I have done this a thousand times this way and it works for me!"

But they're wrong. Dead wrong.

Bob's bad safety attitude

During my tenure as mine trainer, I worked with a heavy duty mechanic named Bob (not his real name - changed to protect his identity). He was a really big guy - tall, large proportioned, massive hands - he was just a big boy!

From time to time, Bob and I would cross paths on the shop floor, where he had this habit of wearing his safety harness leg straps dangling loosely around his knees. That bothered me, because I believed it sent the wrong message to his fellow workers - that not wearing your personal protective equipment properly was somehow acceptable. Only it wasn't! We're all responsible for each other on and off the mine site. In his own little way, I believed Bob subtly undermined the safety attitudes of his peers through his behavior.

I had trained Bob on the proper use of the safety harness before I trained him on the aerial work platform he utilized frequently. So, I warned Bob several times over a period of weeks that he needed to hitch up his safety harness properly. He would swear at me, give me some limp excuse and tighten them up. The next time I saw him it was the same thing. It was very clear that he wasn't taking my warnings seriously!

The third time I saw him walking around like that, I decided that I had enough. It was time to make a statement. So I walked up behind him and pretended to pull his safety harness sharply upward into his crotch. That got his attention, and I again reminded him of what would happen if he fell in a harness he was wearing that way. I wasn't about to let him get the best of me. I refused to back down!

I really pissed off Bob! But I made my point in a memorable way. Not only did he and his gonads get that message VERY clearly, but so did the other people within earshot of us in the shop that day.

I didn't see Bob again for about a month. The next time we encountered each other, he came right up to me and admitted that my safety harness "wedgie" saved his life just a few days earlier. As tears welled up in his eyes, this giant bear of a miner told me about a traumatic incident that nearly cost him his life.

A brush with death

Bob was working in the basket of an aerial work platform, changing out the huge hydraulic cylinders of a hydraulic shovel. Without warning, a chain broke on a come along, the cylinder fell and hit the lift arm of the platform, catapulting him out of it. Fortunately, because he was properly wearing his safety harness and was tethered to the basket, it broke his fall and prevented him from plunging to his death. He walked away from this near-death experience with only bumps and bruises, plus a severely shaken ego. He was a changed man. He knew that he had cheated death.

"You saved my life," he sobbed. "Thank you for being so persistent about getting me to wear my safety equipment. I owe you - big time!" he added. That is the point in my career that I knew I could make a difference.

The lesson

The lesson of this true story is quite simple: Never become complacent. Just because something hasn't happened to you yet doesn't mean you're "safe." An accident can happen anytime, anywhere. Follow the proper safety procedures for each part of your job. Use the provided personal protective equipment properly. Or it could cost you your life!

- Kent Vander Griend

Tags: mining

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