Do you feel lucky?

Do you feel lucky?

Part one in this series – extracts from the five chapters in Prof Andrew Sharman’s and Dr Tim Marsh’s book, Safety Savvy – tells the truth about luck and why you shouldn’t gamble on it.

You look around and it seems clear that nobody ever seems to get the luck they deserve. We can agree that some horrible monkeys get more than their fair share and some deserving people don’t seem to get anything like their fair share. Why is that? Let’s talk about the nature of luck.

What happens when we fall over? The answer is that usually it’s nothing. We stand up, dust ourselves off, hope no-one sawus and get on with things. Sometimes, however, we land badly and break a wrist, or really badly and pop a collar bone – or really, really badly and knock ourselves out. Sometimes we even die.

In fact, if we’re on the stairs at the time we trip then quite often we die (falling down the stairs kills more people than road accidents: about 3 000 to 2 500 in the UK annually).

Bad luck can happen to anyone, but the truth is that whilst there are no guarantees either way – we can have an impact on how much luck we need. Having buckets of positivity, striding out of a helicopter under enemy fire announcing, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” (like Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now) just doesn’t cut it. In real life you’ll need more than unlimited confidence.

The great Admiral Lord Nelson underlines this point for us. His reported last words at the Battle of Trafalgar were: “Don’t worry men they can’t hit anything from there!” But Hollywood blockbusters and naval battles aside, let’s talk about modern day real life.

Would you be surprised to know that on offshore oil platforms in the North Sea as many people have been killed in falls as in explosions? The stairs on these platforms are steep, made of metal, often wet, and used frequently (there are usually no personnel elevators on oil rigs). Using our best guesses, we can estimate the likelihood of falling – even if we’re not holding the handrail – is about 100 000 to one.

So, with a bit of luck, you can never hold the handrail and enjoy a long career offshore without ever falling and you can always sneer at someone who picks you up on it as a fussy do-gooder.

But before you do, let’s think it through a bit more. The stairs on a platform are used about a million times a year – so if no-one holds the handrail then around 10 will fall. And one or two of these 10 are going to really hurt themselves.

Let’s flip this over. If 90% of the people do hold the handrail then, with these same numbers, it’s likely we’ll have just one fall a year. And if 99% of people hold the handrail then we can reduce this frequency further to just one fall every 10 years or so.

As we’ve said – we can’t guarantee good luck, but we can make an impact on how much good luck we might need.

Breaking the chain

Most serious accidents are caused by a chain of events which actually gives us a great opportunity to stop them occurring. This has come to be known as the “Domino Theory”. For example, every year a few dozen people will be killed by being hit on the head with something that falls off a scaffold or from an overhead crane.

So, let’s take scaffolding as an example, and explore how the chain of events might look:

  • Poor housekeeping up on the working platforms, plus
  • Someone not noticing where their feet are going and/or rushing, plus
  • A missing kick board or edge protector, and
  • A lack of pedestrian isolation areas under the scaffold, and
  • A pedestrian walking past below without a hard hat.

If it’s the hard hat that breaks the chain, you’ll know all about it – but you’ll survive. (It’s happened to Tim). What often happens up there on the scaffold is that someone will accidentally kick a power tool, a brick, or even just a metal clip that bounces off a kick board and they’ll look over at the group underneath with hard hats in their hands and muse, “that could’ve been nasty”, before carrying on to the next task.

The group underneath probably never even knew this event occurred – but without that toe-board to break the chain one of the group would have died instantly and would never have seen it coming.

Big data

With the right data we can quite accurately predict how many people will get hurt – we just can’t name them. Consider the first sunny weekend of summer. The shops are selling stacks of cheap outdoor toys. Across the land, hundreds of parents rush out and buy their kids a trampoline and hastily throw them up in the garden. In the haste to keep the kids happy, someof these trampolines will have their side walls missing or not fully connected. Some of the children playing will be properly supervised, but some will not. And some of these children, somewhere, will bounce too hard, fall off the side of the trampoline and be paralysed.

We can tell you with confidence that it WILL happen but we just can’t give you the exact names in advance.

The number of times we roll the dice is directly related to the number of trips to the hospital we need. And it’s as relevant in the workplace as it is in our gardens and home. We could illustrate this by giving you years of scientific data, but would that help? We doubt it. Instead, let’s look at in simple terms.

The luck triangle


Gravity is good. Usually. It stops us zooming off into space, which in itself is helpful enough normally, right? But the suddenness with which it does that sometimes is the root cause for the vast majority of people who turn up in the accident and emergency ward. Because gravity is a bitch.

You are a Formula One champion with nerves of steel and the reflexes of a cat? Gravity doesn’t care. Give it one chance and it’ll do you in – with a whack that would send even Mike Tyson flying.

David Fincher’s 1999 Hollywood blockbuster and Oscar-nominated Fight Club gripped us all with its badass young dudes knocking seven bells out of each other. As the story goes, Brad Pitt spent months in training – building the perfect body and learning his knockout fighting skills.

But when the Hollywood A-lister rocked up to a concert in Los Angeles one Saturday night in April 2015, with a mashed-up face, it wasn’t because of some hardcore stunt he was doing for his latest film. It was because the 53-year-old can’t handle a flight of stairs. “This is what happens when you try to run up steps in the dark, with your arms full, wearing flipflops,” Pitt nervously explained. “Turns out if you then try to stop your forward momentum with your face, the result is road rash.” Come on Brad, it’s about time you got Safety Savvy.

As already stated: more people die falling on stairs than in car accidents. Yep, true. Gravity’s a killer. And no organisation can possibly get anywhere near an accident-free year without a systematic approach to gravity-related behaviours. It doesn’t need to be complicated, so here are six ideas to get you started:

  • Hold the handrail.
  • Step down squarely.
  • Use proper equipment (designed for purpose) for access to height.
  • Don’t stand under there.
  • Don’t stand on that.
  • Keep you hard hat on.

Here’s the truth about luck: once you lose control and roll the dice … it’s the dice that determine what happens next. Not you!

Be safety savvy. Always treat gravity like the opportunistic evil twin that it is and hold on to whatever you’ve got.

Published by

Andrew Sharman

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman is managing partner of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. He’s a chartered member of Saiosh; immediate past president of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health; and chairman of the board of the Institute of Leadership & Management.
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