Take a lesson or two from scuba divers
The importance of following the rules can never be overstressed – especially when you risk a pulmonary embolism, are sitting on the sea bed with manta rays, or conducting your everyday work
Throughout my years as a safety and health professional, it has alarmed me to know how many employees and/or contractors work in unsafe ways. It’s unbelievable, but true. They either enter machinery without isolating and locking out, or without overriding the interlocking devices, or they work without the necessary safety-protection equipment, and/or choose to come into contact with moving and rotating parts of machinery – many of these with life-altering and even fatal consequences!
What has alarmed me even more is that I’ve participated in many investigations of these incidents and major close calls over the years, and often these events (involving total violation of the safety rules and procedures) are, in fact, observed by people or colleagues on site!
In some cases, these observers are even the supervisors and foremen – all failing to respond to the unsafe working behaviour.
Rules of the game: plan, understand and adhere
In the early 2000s, I considered taking up scuba diving, but was put off by the number of “crash courses” offered by resorts around the world (such as in Thailand and Egypt). It was in 2005 that I finally took up the challenge and enrolled with a registered scuba-diver training organisation.
After qualifying, I completed over 100 dives and, despite being fairly experienced by then, it was always comforting to know how much emphasis was placed on safety among the diving community – always!
Before and during every dive the diving rules were revisited, and every diver was expected to follow the rules. For example, it was common practice ahead of any dive for the dive masters or instructors to brief all the divers – sharing information about the dive site and the expected currents. They’d allocate diving partners (the buddy approach), and they’d confirm maximum depth and expected duration of the dive.
In this way, everyone knew and understood the plan. Divers were also reminded that diving is a high-risk activity.
A few years back, a friend of mine asked how I, as a safety and health professional, could do scuba diving, it being such a high-risk sport. Yes, it’s a high-risk sport, with each dive presenting a degree of risk (regardless of all the best laid plans) including, for example, equipment malfunction, getting lost underwater, suffering decompression sickness (known as “the bends”) or pulmonary embolisms from surfacing too fast, running out of oxygen, becoming claustrophobic during wreck dives, or panicking when diving among an abundance of sharks.
There is also the added risk of being attacked by an underwater creature. Although this is more rare, it’s not impossible – just think back to the wildlife TV presenter, Steve Erwin (crocodile hunter), who was fatally injured in 2016 by a stingray.
However, despite the risks, if divers clearly understand the rules of the game and closely adhere to the procedures, the potential for things to go wrong is dramatically reduced.
The same applies in industry: in addition to the various key controls, we need to ensure that good planning of tasks is entrenched among all employees and contractors (including tool-box talks and permit to works), and that all safe-work procedures are easy to read, clearly understood and applied.
Competency through training … and more training
Qualifying as a scuba diver requires both theoretical and practical training from certified diving institutions. Whether it’s to obtain entry-level open-water one qualification, advanced, master or rescue-diver qualification, or whether it’s to become a dive master, they all require theoretical and practical training sessions.
This ensures sufficient understanding and competence. Even once qualified, if a significant amount of time has passed since their last dive, the diver is required to kit up and enter the water to conduct certain exercises to ensure competence.
The same should apply to industry! By ensuing appropriate and well thought through training material, competence tests and practical exercises, industry can ensure that employees and contractors understand the rules and relevant procedures and that they have the competence to do the tasks expected of them.
Just presenting PowerPoint slides and/or showing a safety video does not ensure sufficient understanding of what is required; and without “on the job” training, competence is not a given.
Importantly, refresher training must be conducted and discussions held to ensure a clear understanding of what action to take if or when things go wrong. Refresher training and communication efforts must be focused on making safety a habit.
Entrenching the buddy approach
The buddy approach is entrenched in scuba-diver training. Before embarking on any dive, the dive master will allocate a buddy to every diver. The expectation is that they look out for each other’s safety throughout the dive.
This includes checking each other’s equipment prior to any dive (such as checking that oxygen bottles are open and pressure gauges are working, weight belts are fitted and the buoyancy-control devices are secured).
Once again, the same buddy approach should apply to industry – where colleagues look after their own safety, as well as the safety of others. Also known as an interdependent culture, this approach will prevent many injuries (including life altering and fatal injuries) and will make a significant difference to the safety performance of a company.
Living by the rules of the game
Living by the rules of the game is not always the easy option, but it does need to be the only option.
One of my dreams has been to dive with the manta rays, and it was on a reef dive in the Maldives where I finally realised the magic of diving with these magnificent creatures. After about 20 minutes of anxious waiting, the first manta made its way towards the reef, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves among 13 mantas! All seven divers sat on the seabed in absolutely awe as the mantas played in our bubbles and swam around us.
When the maximum dive time had been reached we all began our ascent, completed our safety stop at five meters, surfaced and climbed onto the dive boat. You can imagine the excitement of the team of divers, with everyone regaling their experiences and sharing photographs.
It wasn’t long before the divers started talking about going back into the water, but without sufficient time on the surface. The dive master reluctantly agreed, but with the proviso that everyone had to be in agreement.
While the opportunity to swim among the mantas again was extremely appealing, I could not agree to breaking the safety rules. As a result, we all had to wait out the correct time allocation before descending. Needless to say, I was the least popular person on the boat at that time!
While fewer than on the first dive, the mantas fortunately did grace us with their presence again, but, regardless of whether they had or not, I had no regrets – compromising my safety and that of my dive buddies was never an option.
If we want to make a difference and ensure continuous improvement in the safety culture and performance of operations, adopting the same disciplined approach of scuba diving is important.
That, in combination with other safety initiatives, will develop the desired behaviours and promote the interdependent culture where “buddies look after buddies”, or, in industrial terms, where colleagues look after colleagues.
Senior leaders and first-line managers (supervisors and foremen) have an important role to play in ensuring this interdependent culture, and having a zero tolerance to any violation of all safety rules and procedures. In addition, we all have a responsibility to understand and adhere to the safety rules and procedures, thereby ensuring our own safety and the safety of our colleagues, our buddies at work.