One Key Question Every LIFE Guard Must Ask

I never planned to be a safety director. I think my path was chosen for me through a series of circumstances that started when I was 16 years old and landed my first official job. Back then, I was a lifeguard at a public pool in my South Dakota hometown, and I continued to lifeguard during the summers of my college years. At the pool where I worked, the safety orientation always included the tragic story of a little boy who had drowned many years ago when the pool was overcrowded one hot summer day. The story gave me and the other lifeguards I worked with a sense of the importance of our job. Hearing it was an opportunity to remind ourselves that we were LIFE guards.

Today, I still find myself hearing stories about on-the-job tragedies. I’m sure you have, too. No one wants these tragedies to happen, so what can we do to stop them?

I believe stories shape our thinking and instill in us a stronger commitment to do better. This commitment, though, can only arise when stories are treated as learning opportunities. If they are merely told and then promptly forgotten, the point is missed, the opportunity is gone, and we haven’t made our world any safer. We didn’t do anything with the story.

To improve safety, it is vital to ask this key question every time we hear a story about a job-related accident, “Now that I know, what will I do?” In answering that question, take the following actions:

  1. Engage in conversation. When you hear about an on-the-job tragedy, be prepared to have in-depth conversations about the actions that were taken and why certain decisions were made. It’s not about placing blame; it’s about trying to understand behavior and find a root cause.
  2. Ask if this accident could have happened at one of your sites. Answer honestly. This is no time to hold anything back. Secrets don’t save lives.
  3. If your answer is, “no,” justify why the accident could not have happened at one of your sites. This step validates the safe work practices that have been established and guide your work. It gives you a chance to verbally state safe conditions, rules and actions and to have all of your colleagues affirm them. In short, it’s an opportunity to acknowledge the strength of your safety culture.
  4. If your answer is, “yes,” the accident could have happened at one of your sites, what can you do? This step helps you to find further value in sharing accident stories. Take time to determine the actions you need to take or the equipment you need to acquire to mitigate hazards and prevent injury. Making the choice to do these things is a proactive way that ensures “This isn’t going to happen here.”

Move Safety Forward

When you ask the key question and take the related actions, you are choosing to guard people’s lives. You are moving safety forward. However, if you choose not to ask the question and take action, you may find yourself in a place you don’t want to be. Consider this story.

A few years ago, an electrical cooperative shared a letter they found in their archives. Although it was written many years ago, it remains timeless. It is one of those letters that at the end, makes your heart hurt. It seems it was written with a purpose greater than the author might have imagined. This letter was meant to be shared.

“Heard through the vine you wanted a copy of our accident report of our fatality. It was our first serious accident we have ever had. It was one of my men and needless to say, it hurts us deeply. It was my first experience with a crisis like this and I hope it will be my last. I went with his wife to the clinic and stayed with her until the end.

All I know is, if somehow all linemen could get that helpless feeling sitting with a man’s wife waiting, we wouldn’t need as many written safety rules. As in most accidents of this kind, he was not wearing his rubber gloves, and even if he were, if he were thinking at all, he should not have considered even touching anything.”

You don’t have to be working at a pool with a whistle around your neck to be a LIFE guard. Indeed, you are one every day as you work with your crew. Be willing to always ask the key question every time you hear a story and then act. Through all our actions, hopefully someday we will have no more tragic stories to tell.

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