Bernoulli and You

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    By Jim Knapp

    Jim K

    I was asked to write a blog about health and safety. Like most people that have worked or supervised in the field my reaction was, “what a pain”. Safety procedures, devices and practices take time and energy away from our main task of completing a job. They are usually cumbersome. In the pressures of a busy day taking time out to add safety protection can seem like a burden, especially since the chances of anything going wrong are so tiny.

    What I needed in order to write this blog was a convincing argument for why you should take the extra time to use your safety equipment safely and consistently. If you have a tiny chance of having an accident each time you do a task what would motivate you to use the appropriate safety equipment each time?  Then it occured to me that if I could determine the odds over the length of an entire career I might be able to make a better case. It turns out that a 17th century mathematician named Jacob Beroulli invented a process to determine that. Let’s say that the chances of falling while working above ground on a ladder or roof are 1 in 10,000 (there isn’t really a published number for this, but let’s just say...). Those are pretty good odds. I’d definitely go swimming at the beach if my odds of a shark attack were 1 in 10,000. However, over the course of an entire career you may end up working above ground thousands of times, let’s say 5000 (about 3 times a week for 30 years). What are the odds of falling if the odds are 1 in 10,000 when you repeat it 5000 times? That’s 4999 days of successfully working above ground and 1 day of taking a nasty fall. Using the Bernoulli process I get a probability of falling during the course of your career at around 30%. No way would I go swimming at that beach if I had a 1 in 3 chance of a shark attack! 

    If you knew which day of working above the ground was going to be the one day that you take a fall you could make sure you have your fall protection equipment with you, and not bother for all those others. Unfortunately, you don’t. For repetitive dangerous tasks like working at height, chemicals, electrical, lifting, closed space, etc. it would be better to treat the odds as if Bernoulli was watching. It would actually make more sense to treat the odds of falling, each time you step on the rung of a ladder as 1 in 3 since those are truly the odds of you taking a spill. If those are truly the odds then putting on fall protection, or arc protection, or lock out/tag out, or a hard hat (you get the idea) may not seem so cumbersome and time consuming.

    There’s another kind of safety risk that we don’t need Beroulli for. A whole bunch of safety hazards aren’t one-off catastrophic events like getting electrocuted or falling from a roof. Things like carpal tunnel syndrome, hearing loss, lung damage or cataracts are also safety issues. The damage from these types of hazards accumulate in tiny increments that can be debilitating after working a lifetime in the field. For example, it’s unlikely that any one loud noise is going to make you deaf, but working in a noisy environment will gradually degrade your hearing. Over a lifetime, that could be a serious injury. 

    Next time you are working in a hazardous situation it would be better to view using your safety equipment and safety procedures in the larger context; the shark won’t get you if you don’t leave anything to chance.

    For more on safety, check out our blog posts "5 Ways To Improve Truck Safety" and "Hearing Safety 101."



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