The recent fatal gas line dig-in by a contractor in Murrieta should be a stark reminder of the potential danger in the work we do every day. An important fact that can’t be overlooked on this particular dig-in: it was reported at 11 a.m., SoCal Gas was onsite within 20 minutes, the explosion happened at 12:10 p.m. That’s almost an hour with qualified gas workers being in control of the situation. How this hazardous situation turned into a dangerous one has not been determined yet, but recognizing the difference is an important first step.
Hazard and danger are separate terms with an important relationship. A clear understanding of both and how they interact allows us to better identify unsafe conditions and behaviors, gain a better understanding of why specific controls and procedures are in place for any given hazard, and know why these controls must remain in place to prevent future dangers. Safety hazard: An unsafe condition or behavior that could lead to an accident or injury. We work with hazards every day, yet we are usually not in any real danger. With safety controls in place to protect us, we can go through the day without thinking much about them. Safety controls are preventative protections we often take for granted, such as traffic control or properly shoring an excavation before we enter, which significantly reduce the risk of a safety hazard leading to an actual danger.
When you’re flying, you’re traveling more than 400 miles per hour at 30,000 feet high in a pressurized metal tube. Do you worry about it being dangerous? Probably not, and the reason is that aviation has set standards they adhere to – a preflight checklist (JSA), standard flight instructions, flight directions and altitude standards to prevent air collisions, and emergency plans for flight emergencies, to name a few.
We need training to improve our ability to recognize potential hazards and practice using controls to “find and fix” them. Our playbook is the JSA. We use this tool to identify potential hazards associated with the daily planned tasks. When preparing a JSA you must consider how likely each task could cause potential danger and use the information to determine how to reduce the level of risk.
Even after all precautions have been taken, some risk remains. We must make sure our teams are aware of, and know how to deal with, the hazards. Investing more time in identifying and mitigating those hazards means less time we must invest in accident investigation or worse.