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Shortcuts, discipline and safety

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James DeHaan
  • Chief of safety with the 436th Airlift Wing Safety Office
I'm not a fan of Bob Villa; for the younger crowd who might not know who I'm talking about, just picture a live-action Bob the Builder. Just the sound of high-rpm power tools makes my middle finger ache.

One week before graduation and commissioning, and two weeks before getting married, I was helping classmates put the finishing touches on our senior project. One of the steps involved using a 'planer'. This contraption's only purpose in life is to spin sharp blades around at about 5,000 rpm to remove unwanted wood from boards. Eighteen years later, with an overly-sensitive, scarred, right middle finger and fingernail that'll never look right, I can tell you two things: one: I still don't know what a "planer" is, or how to safely operate one; two: I know that if I'm asked to use one again, I'll have the sense to say, "nope, don't know how to use it."

I took a shortcut that day. I decided it would be easier to just give it a try rather than ask for a quick tutorial on the equipment. Shortcuts like this one are cited in many of the safety reports I come across in this job. Just a few years ago, at another Air Mobility Command base, an Airman lost his life working on a C-17 Globemaster III because someone thought they had a shortcut for getting the job done. The maintenance checklists spelled out exactly how to do the job they were trying to complete, yet in the interest of saving time, the team made up a procedure which ended up killing one of their friends.

More recently a man lost his life while cutting back some branches in his backyard. Rather than using an electric tool perfectly suited for the job (this tool was in his garage), he elected to use a gas-powered chain saw while standing on an unstable ladder. He most likely made this choice because he didn't want to drag enough extension cord out to reach the tree, and that decision cost him his life.

How about drinking and driving? Are shortcuts a factor here as well? I think so. An individual may have decided not to make a plan for their night out, or when the time came to put the plan into action (such as calling a cab or a friend for a ride), they may have thought to themselves, "I'm alright, it'll be a huge pain to come pick up my car tomorrow; I can make it."

We've all heard the saying "it's easier to work smarter than it is to work harder." Where safety is concerned, I think it may be better to say "it's smarter to work harder." Our core values are the basis for this. Integrity - do the right thing when nobody's looking. You're probably not going to skip that checklist step if your squadron commander is watching you, don't skip it when he or she isn't watching you. Service before self - if it takes you a little longer to do things the safe and correct way, you owe it to your country and your loved ones to do so. Excellence in all we do - taking shortcuts, doing the bare minimum, and always looking for the easy way says something about you; does it say what you want it to?

So, if you're a C-5 Galaxy pilot eyeballing a fifth pro-gear bag to drag down the crew entry ladder - make a second trip. If you're sure the text message you're getting in your car is the one telling you about the lottery you just won - pull over and reply. If your charcoal isn't getting hot quick enough, leave the gas can in the garage, grab an iced tea, and wait a few more minutes. More importantly, if you see me with a piece of plywood looking quizzically at a loud, complicated piece of machinery - tackle me, unplug the machine, and make me re-read this article.

Have the discipline to not take unsafe shortcuts and we'll all be a little better off.