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My “Vulnerability” Story, because I’m also human.

I was recently reading a book entitled “What Safety Leaders Do” by Matthew Forck, the book has a section entitled “Vulnerability” which advocates that a good way for safety leaders to show they are also human is to admit to safety mistakes they have made in the past. With that as my starting point, I thought I would share with you a personal safety “vulnerability” which happened to me nearly 40 years ago.

At a tender age of 22 I was entrusted to lead a staff of artisans in the Gold Mining Industry of South Africa: Young as I was, the job came with a large responsibility, for which I felt perfectly capable of carrying. On one particular day I had organized a group of workers who were tasked to install a large metal, vertically hung door in a main drive. The door was intended to be closed in the event of a fire thereby blocking off air and starve the fire of oxygen.

At the end of the shift, the guys reported back to me that they had managed to hang the door on the hinges but there was a “small problem” that the door couldn’t close fully because of some rock protruding into the path of the closing door. They further explained that the rock had a crack behind it and they had tried to dislodge it with crowbars, but without success.

After considering the problem I decided on a plan of action which was to request the mining department to bring a few sticks of dynamite on the following shift and “pop out” the offending rock and thus allow the door to close without hindrance. And so, I approached one of the Mining Foremen (a Shiftboss), explained my problem and he agreed to accompany me before the end of the shift and we would blast the rock out.

Fast forward now to the next day at 12 o’clock when the Shiftboss and I met at the location, he brandishing a stick of dynamite and a fuse. He pushed the fuse into the “stick” and placed the dynamite and fuse behind the offending rock with the fuse draped over the top. He then asked me to move up the tunnel for 30 meters to prevent anyone entering the area and he would stand on the other side of the blasting site and similarly guard that side. I however objected… I knew when the blast went off it would send dust up the tunnel towards me and I would end up coughing and spluttering…

We discussed my objection, a sort of weak and inadequate risk assessment and after some deliberations and a quick look at our watches we decided that it was unlikely that anyone would be walking down the tunnel at that time as it was too early for the shift to be finishing! So with a false sense of confidence (let’s be honest this was not confidence but stupidity) he lit the fuse and we retreated to a point clear of the blast, on the clean air side. As we watched, from our place of safety, the sparks and smoke from the fuse disappear behind the rock, we saw a colleague come walking into the danger zone!!!

We both rushed out into the main tunnel, shouting and waving frantic warnings to the guy to “get back” but it was too late… with an almighty bang rocks came flying around us and before the dust settled we were running up the tunnel to witness the injury we had surely caused by our recklessness.

As we drew up to the guy he was getting to his feet and dusting himself off, not a scratch anywhere on his body and only slightly annoyed (Gold Miners are a hardy bunch). At his behest, we vowed never to speak of the incident (lest the Shiftboss lose his blasting license and his job).

As we walked to the shaft to get a cage out of the mine he told us calmly what had happened; he had heard the “fizzing” sound, which he immediately recognised as a burning fuse and, not being able to see where the sound was coming from, he instinctively threw himself forward onto the ground between the rail tracks, covered his head with his arms and hoped for the best whilst cursing the idiot who had not posted a warning or guard.

I personally never spoke about this incident until almost 20 years afterwards when I was relaying stories of my mining days to a group of friends over a few beers, I had kept the covenant we made that day all of that time

Now the theme of the story is my vulnerability of making a mistake, a joint one at that, and a further mistake not to report it as a Near Miss, but to have done so, in that work environment and in those times, it would not have been seen as a good management practice to highlight safety issues, but merely as an opportunity to punish someone. In the main safety management ideology has changed somewhat these day, and today this would have been captured as positive (OK it remains a fact that a procedure and a law had been broken and there would have been some disciplinary outcome).

If only we had had some form of confidential reporting system back then, where the experience could have been shared to the benefit of others, to prevent someone else making this thoughtless mistake and endangering lives.

How many times something similar has happened over the past forty years, it is not possible to even guess, but I am almost certain that something similar has happened since then, possibly costing someone their life…

Next time, I’ll tell you how a miner inadvertently “blasted me with coal” in a freak shot-firing incident in an underground colliery… (With a safety record like this, it’s no wonder I’m a safety specialist)

Martyn Gomersall – March 2018

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