Designing a foolproof safety system- Part 1

Building a safe working environment is not a job for amateurs. Do it properly and watch your profits rise.

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr was an aerospace engineer who worked on safety for the Apollo project. As you will appreciate, safety in the aerospace business is an extremely serious matter, as an accident almost inevitably results in death.

Murphy took his job seriously, and in a moment of frustration after yet another accident occurred, uttered the famous words: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” This became known as ‘Murphy’s Law’.

While Murphy’s Law is often quoted in jest, it’s a fundamental tenet underpinning the design of any process or equipment.
It has led to the principle of ‘defensive design’, which tries to anticipate all the possible ways in which a process or device will be misused, and seeks to make such misuse difficult, if not impossible.

Now, safety on the farm might not be quite as grave an issue as it is in the aerospace industry, but a farmer has a moral obligation to keep his employees safe. Moreover, it makes good business sense. Let me tell you the story of my own experience of building a safer work environment for our staff.

If anyone asked me how safe it was to work on the farm I managed, my answer was always the same: “Very safe. We take all the necessary precautions to protect our employees, and seldom have an injury at work.”

Rude awakening
Brian, our workshop manager, heard me say this one day, and challenged me: “How do you know our safety record is that good when we don’t keep a detailed record of all our accidents?”

“Come on, Brian,” I said. “Surely we don’t need more paper passing over our desks?”

But he prevailed and I reluctantly agreed to let him set up a comprehensive accident recording system. I didn’t expect it to last too long as I was sure we would find it a waste of time.

I was shocked. At the end of the first month, there were more than 20 injury reports. Nothing serious, but cuts and bruises that needed some form of first aid. Most of this was administered by the section supervisor, but a couple of cuts became infected, which meant a trip to the clinic and a few days light duty or off work until it cleared up.

I was duly chastened, and asked Brian to continue with his recording programme. I also exhorted all our managers and supervisors to support him.

The problem was that Brian now wanted us to keep a record not only of accidents that required first aid treatment, but of what he called ‘incidents’, near misses which could easily have turned into something more serious. Once again, I thought this was going too far, but as before, he got his way.

At our routine monthly management meeting, Brian’s accident/incident report was another bombshell. There were not as many accidents as in the previous month, but one was more serious, involving a broken arm. The list of ‘incidents’, however, was a long one. And already a pattern was starting to emerge.

Some injuries, such as light cuts to irrigation workers who had to push through sharp-edged sugarcane, we could do something about: we provided protective clothing. But other injuries or near-injuries were due to the irresponsible actions of our employees – ‘misuse’, in other words.

How were we to stop people putting their fingers into sprockets in the packhouse while the machines were running? How were we to stop workers from jumping off trailers and spraining ankles?

What was also starting to dawn on us was the cost of all this. Apart from the occasional medical bill, there was all the time wasted by supervisors dealing with the incident, then the working time lost. We needed urgently to develop our own form of Murphy’s ‘defensive design’, but where would we find help to do this?

No problem, said our safety champion Brian, let’s call NASA. They’ll help us sort it out. Watch this space.