The red hat test: Make safety and training a priority

I started working in the coal mines in September of 1972 at the age of 18. My orientation lasted all of 10 minutes. After less than a year of coal mining, I quit to attend my second year of college. Fifteen months later I was back in a different coal mine. Immediately prior to beginning my second job in the mines, a young miner was killed in a roof bolting accident. I didn’t know the young man but I learned that he was my age. It seems that he had worked in the coal mine all summer and at the last minute had decided to postpone his junior year of college at Ohio University to work an additional quarter. Unfortunately, a second’s lapse of attention along with inexperience cost him his life.

The MESA (Mine Enforcement Safety Administration) inspectors, as they were called in those days, cracked down on the regulations concerning new miners who had worked underground for less than a year. All new miners were required to wear a green hat for the first 90 days. Then, they had to wear a red hat for the rest of the first year. The reason for the hat designation was that for the first three months a miner was not allowed to operate equipment. During the rest of the miner’s first year, he had to have an experienced miner with him when he operated equipment. Many fatalities in the coal mines happened to miners with less than a year’s experience.

I had only worked underground for about 11 months in my first coal mining job. Therefore, when I began work at the second mine, the mine safety director took my hat and painted it red. After one month, I painted it black to remove the greenhorn stigma. To miners a red hat is synonymous with rookie.

I have often thought about the hat communication in the coal mine. A coal miner’s hat had a lot of meaning for him. The color certainly indicated experience or lack of it. In addition, miners loved to put reflective stickers on their hats. These stickers generally were advertisements for various mining equipment vendors. However, when placed on the hat, the stickers customized the look of the hat. Once you knew the types of stickers and position of those stickers on an individual’s hat, you could identify him from over a hundred feet away.

While I was embarrassed with having to wear a redhat, it was a requirement designed to protect me. Leaders have the responsibility to protect workers whether they like it or not. In my training sessions, I have found some supervisors struggle with getting employees to wear personal protective equipment such as safety glasses and hearing protection. Strong enforcement efforts are exerted for a time and then laxness returns. Most jobs don’t hold the dangers that coal mining does but good leaders invent processes to ensure new employees survive with all their fingers, toes, eyes, and hearing intact.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of “The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success,” visit his Web site, Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.