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Gravity is a harsh mistress

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‘Gravity is a harsh mistress’. That was the tagline in my life before consultancy. One time I had a close encounter with the harshness of this elusive mistress. It was a clear case of feeling too comfortable being so close to her….

In my previous blog, I spoke about my three pillars of safety: awareness; behaviour; and leadership. This time, I want to focus on the pillar of behaviour and what my own personal experience has taught me.

Working at height is still one of the activities in the working environment that carries the highest risk. Unfortunately, incident statistics also prove that this is true.

Most of our systems are built with multiple storeys and on occasion our engineers have to access locations up to 35 metres high. Despite providing regular training, supervision and top-quality equipment, sadly we are not incident free.

The people around me know that I care deeply about safety and working at height has a special place in my life. As the saying goes, ‘sharing is caring’. So, it is time for me to tell you about my experience and how this links back to behaviour.

Risky behaviour

I was working my way through a surreal deep gorge of the Riou river in southern France. I was teaching new colleagues about how to safely pass through these river gorges while navigating wild waters, slides, jumps and up to 70-metre-high rappels in waterfalls.

This had been my work for many years and I had become remarkably comfortable in this environment despite its high-risk. It was exactly that comfortable feeling that resulted in me taking a considerable risk at the very last rappel of the canyon.

I was faced with a relatively small drop of about five metres with a little pool below. Taking point in the group meant that I was on my own at that moment, with nobody questioning my actions.

I had a rope in my backpack, a conveniently placed bombproof anchor was right there in front of me. There was no one pushing me to do it and there was no rush to go for that hard-earned beer, as I still had to wait for the last person to come past this last drop. Nevertheless, I chose the ‘quick and dirty’ route down. I climbed down this drop by a few metres, before jumping the last two into the water.

Despite the pool looking safe from above, as I landed I immediately felt a sudden dry snap in my lower leg. That was not supposed to happen! The pain and the wobbly feeling made it very clear that I had broken a bone in my lower leg or ankle. So much for ‘behaviour’!

I managed to stay calm but I was so angry at myself for taking such a foolish risk and knowing that I would not be able to work for weeks or months to come. Due to the nature of the training group, I also had to wait more than an hour before everyone on the team was together and we could stage an evacuation from the canyon, giving me plenty of time to feel sorry and angry.

Teaching from experience

Today, the scar on my leg still reminds me of the incident and I feel the metal support in it itch when the weather turns. My respect for Miss Gravity is huge, although I do still like to take her out for a dance from time to time. So why am I telling you about my mistake? Would I not earn more respect if I suggested that I was impeccable? I believe not.

Please let me share some of the key points that I gained from this experience. Key points I have incorporated and hammered into my trainees in the many safe work and rescue at height courses that I have had the privilege to teach.

  • Learn from mistakes
    Not only from your own but also those made by others. The ability to learn as a collective is what has brought humanity to where it is now. Share your mistakes – small or big – and view the lessons you learnt as a valuable resource for your colleagues and others.


  • Never work alone
    Look after each other and don’t be afraid to ask questions if an action someone is about to take seems strange. Be supportive when there are issues, even if communication in certain areas is difficult.


  • Come prepared
    Know what task you are about to undertake. Understand the risks involved. Make sure you have followed all the proper training. Know who will come to help you in case something doesn’t go as planned. Things might look safe from one perspective but you should always check to make sure they actually are.


  • Know your kit and use it
    What equipment do you need to safely reach a work location at height? Is it available, in safe working order and do you know how to use it properly? Always make the effort get the right kit and use it, even if you feel it makes your task last longer and more complex. Cutting corners is a big step towards accidents happening.


  • Know your rescue options and first aid
    Even if you come prepared with all the right kit, issues might still arise. Hanging in your harness halfway in a dark warehouse racking or having issues high up a scissor lift can cause serious issues for rescue and evacuation.
    Getting you or your colleague out of that situation can be a huge task and, if time is of the essence, extremely stressful for all involved. Make sure you are prepared to take the right actions yourself as waiting for somebody else might not save your colleague in time.

Making mistakes is something we all do and most of the time there is a favourable outcome. Don’t keep those moments to yourself in fear of shame or concern about the consequences. Share them with the world around you so others can learn from them too. Tell the story, complete that near miss report and you might even save a life.


Merijn Buitelaar

Service Consultant - Member Global HSE Committee

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