Keeping cool with your mind on the job [OPINION]

Yesterday was a terrible day for Western Australia. In the morning we heard about two young Irish workers, one of whom was due to return home for Christmas, killed by a falling concrete panel in East Perth.

While not a mining industry accident, this still sends shockwaves through anyone who has worked in construction. Back in 2007 when I left exploration and first started rigging, I cut my teeth on a high-rise construction project in Rivervale (If you drive south from the Airport on your break, you will probably see the three, ten-storey towers next to the river). So I felt very personally for those two guys, even not knowing who they were, what they looked like, who will miss them… But we can picture the accident, and it’s horrifying.

Only a matter of mere hours later, we’ve been hit with news another tragedy: A scaffolder at the Alcoa refinery in Kwinana, who fell 10 metres or more to his death; such a terrible thing to happen.

The Department of Mines and Petroleum said that the man entered a digester vessel which had no scaffolding, and he fell a “considerable distance” to the bottom of the vessel.

Anyone who has worked in construction will feel for this situation. At this point there’s no way to assess what really happened, and unfortunately for worker education, we never get to find out exactly what happened until the investigation is finished, often many months later.

What we do know is that this was a working at heights incident, and the best we can do is make sure that if we are going to be in a situation where a fall can happen, harness up and hook on.

No matter how experienced you think you are, no matter if it’s just a quick little thing you want to do, hook on. It’s the only insurance policy you’ve got, so make sure you use it. It’s too late after you fall.

At the same time, I think it’s worth addressing that two unrelated accidents on the same day is such a terrible coincidence.

There are two major risks to be aware of at this time of year: Firstly, heat exhaustion. It’s a very real killer and it’s easily prevented by drinking plenty of water. I know we all know this, but I think it’s worth restating that if you feel the slightest bit thirsty, have a drink. The fact is, if you fell thirsty, you haven’t been drinking enough. You shouldn’t let it get to that level of discomfort.

This is because the next step from thirsty is an ever increasing level of dehydration, which can start to alter the way you perceive things.

If you’re working up north, sometimes in the searing, 50 degrees-plus heat of the afternoon sun, you already know how debilitating it can be to even go an hour without water.

I remember a piping supervisor on Curtis Island drumming into us that while it’s important to look after Number One first, it’s just as important to watch your mates, especially for any change in mood. If you’re on the job and working hard, it’s so easy to keep working and forget to have a drink. One of the most obvious outward danger signs of dehydration is anger.

I say outward, because it’s very hard to identify in yourself. You might be having trouble pinning a piece of steel, or you’re stuck welding in a really awkward position, and you start get a little pissed off. If you see someone start to get the shits in a situation that wouldn’t normally phase them, they are probably entering a danger zone for dehydration. Ask them when they last had a drink, and that should be enough to get them to snap out of it and take a break. If they won’t, you have to stop and make them have a drink and a rest. Keeping a watchful eye like this goes double for leading hands and supervisors.

Many of us have been close to the point of collapse at least once, and know that you simply don’t think straight in that situation. It’s usually when you’ve been doing something really physical, like digging a trench, and you’re determined to go hard and finish the job. If you've lost sight of the danger of dehydration, it’s often up to someone else to see what’s going on and tell you to stop and have a drink.

The most important thing my supervisor said was that once someone collapses from dehydration, they could already be lost, so it’s important to make sure you drink up. He reckoned he had seen a man drop on the job in Darwin, who never came back to work.

The weather was mild in Perth yesterday, but nevertheless as we work into summer it’s worth remembering to think of your colleagues, especially those that don’t have too many mates of their own, and keep an eye out for any sign of dehydration or exhaustion.

The other major factor in personal safety at this time of year is the holiday period. We get distracted very easily, thinking about going on break, seeing the family, having a few seasonal parties to blow off a bit of steam. Maybe you're worried about how to pay for this expensive period, and the presents and bills, food and drink to cover? We’ve been working all year, and we want to have a rest, and this is when the mind starts to wander off the job.

This affects people who work away even more, whether you’re driving trucks or working FIFO. People who work 4/1 construction rosters have to be especially vigilant against distractions, ESPECIALLY in the fourth week of swing.

At Christmastime we often have a slight change in roster to fit in with the holiday period, and you might pull a five week swing, which is a real danger zone for losing concentration.

With three deaths occurring exactly one month before Christmas, this should serve as a timely reminder to all of us, whether you’re in mining, oil and gas, construction, or even metro work, to look after yourself, look after your mates, and be able to look after your family when you come home… so stay safe.

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