Chain of Thought

Feeling So Safe, it's Downright Dangerous

Last week the captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship managed to crash both the vessel and his career on the rocks off the coast of Italy. How could this happen? This vacation-on-water had all the latest electronic gizmos to keep itself and its passengers out of harm's way.

As the Titanic taught us 100 years ago, nothing's more dangerous than believing in the infallibility of man.

There was a good column in the Wall Street Journal this weekend titled “The Dangers of Safety.” The author's contention is that advances in safety technology, like football helmets that protect from concussions and parachutes that protect from late deployment, give their wearers a false sense of security, therefore these people do stupid things from which the equipment won't protect them. The author's conclusion: “Sometimes the safest way to live is to be a little afraid.”

Reading the newspaper is a good way to live in fear. This weekend's read taught me a new syndrome to avoid: the “risk compensation effect.” We all have anti-lock brakes on our cars, but studies have shown that knowing this has caused drivers to do things they wouldn't have done without them—like drive faster and brake later.

There are corollaries in the material handling world—lift trucks, for example. Some have built-in stability systems to sense unsafe loads, others have speed governors, all have seat belts, etc., etc. Using the logic of the risk compensation effect, you'd think we'd see a gradual rise in lift truck accidents and deaths. But no.

OSHA data over the years have shown pretty consistent numbers. Injury and death rates are high, but they've stayed pretty flat. Stats indicate that the three most common forklift-related fatalities involve overturns, pedestrians being struck by forklifts, and workers falling from forklifts. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) concludes that the consistent fatalities indicate that “many workers and employers are not using or may be unaware of safety procedures and the proper use of forklifts to reduce the risk of injury and death.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that each year in the United States, nearly 100 workers are killed and another 20,000 are seriously injured in forklift-related incidents. And according to the National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities (NTOF) Surveillance System, in the United States, 1,021 workers died from traumatic injuries suffered in forklift-related incidents between 1980 and 1994. Broken down by year, that's an average of 85 fatalities—not to mention 34,902 serious injuries and 61,800 non-serious injuries—each year.

But could this be a glass-half-full kind of thing? Maybe the reason the numbers aren't rising each year is that the safety technology keeps lift trucks fool-proof to a point. Of course one could argue that employers aren't adequately training employees about the safety features and capabilities of these vehicles—therefore the operators don't know enough to exhibit the risk-compensation effect by ratcheting up those numbers.

Maybe it's both. According to OSHA the top five citations issued for 29CFR1910.178 are:

• Failure to ensure operator competency

• Failure to certify operator's training and evaluation

• Failure to provide refresher training and evaluation

• Failure to examine forklifts before placing them in service

• Failure to take damaged forklifts out of service.

Risk compensation syndrome might be displacing attention deficit disorder as pop psychology's favorite trend, but to have it, you have to know what you're being protected from. That's a trend more material handlers should risk following.

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