Leaders must alert employees to risks

I once knew a supervisor whose right thumb was missing. I asked him about his mishap and he explained a frightening tale. In his younger days as a section foreman, one of his roof bolter’s machines was malfunctioning. The roof bolting machine is designed to capture the dust created in the drilling process by sucking it through holes below the drill bit and through the drill steel. The dust is collected in a series of dust bags, which have to be dumped periodically. A common problem is that, if you don’t empty your dust bags regularly, the dust becomes clogged in the drill steel or hoses.

One midnight shift, the steel lodged in the top and the supervisor began a trouble-shooting process on the machine. He asked the operator to lower the machine’s drilling head from the steel. Once the machine’s head was disconnected from the steel, he put his hand over the chuck of the machine to detect whether or not the suction had cleared the obstruction. Next, he beat on the hoses with his right hand still over the drilling head. Still there was no noticeable suction. Fearing he was going to have to disassemble the hoses to remove the clog of dust, he tried one last trick. Without moving his hand, he ordered the operator to start the rotation of the drilling head hoping the vibration would clear it.

The rotation lever is identical and to the right of the one that moved the head up and down. The operator, who was inexperienced and tired, raised the head of the machine instead of turning on the rotation. This action pinned the supervisor’s thumb between the machine’s head and the drill steel, which was still in the top. When the miner saw what he had done, he panicked and ran. The supervisor vainly tried to work his way around to the machines’ controls in order to lower the head. Finally, another miner arrived and dropped the roof bolter’s head. Unfortunately, his thumb was irretrievably damaged by the accident and had to be removed.

Many coal miners held a strong belief in fate regarding the probability of accidents and even death. Showing their tendency toward predestination, I often heard miners say, “If it is your time, nothing will stop that falling rock from hitting you or that machine from pinning you against the rib.” However, I believed most accidents could be eliminated by keen observation and anticipating dangers. Leaders must strive to continually reduce accidents by teaching employees about past accidents and alerting them to possible risks. If you accept the inevitability of accidents, in a way, you doom yourself to experience them.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “And my Brother Jack: Everyday Leadership Lessons,” visit his website raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.

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