What Would Old MacDonald Say About System Safety?

Remember the song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”? I remember singing it as a kid. It was a fun song, which could go on endlessly, and was limited only by our imagination on the types of animals Old MacDonald had on his farm. I don’t know much about Old MacDonald, not even how old he really was. Age often brings wisdom and I wonder if, being as old as he was and accumulating so many animals on his farm, he had gained a great deal of wisdom in his lifetime. If I could ask him about some wisdom related to system safety on his farm I bet Old MacDonald could tell me a thing or two, which brings me to the point of this story.

I recently retired from the Marine Corps. After serving 20 years as an officer and Aviator I decided it was time to do something else with my life. For a good portion of my career I lived on Marine Corps and Navy Bases or I lived in the towns surrounding these bases. This was pretty much like “city life”. After retirement I moved to the country and for the first time began to experience the challenges associated with this type of living.

A few weeks ago, I was moving a vehicle around the property, which has several irrigation spigots sticking out of the ground. There is one spigot, which is only a couple of feet tall. I knew that it would be hard to see from my vehicle, so I made a mental note to steer away from it. After parking my vehicle, getting out to perform some tasks, it was time to move it again. This time I got back in my vehicle and struck the spigot with my wheel. I immediately stopped, examined the spigot and my wheel, and then carefully moved my vehicle by turning the wheels away from the spigot. Fortunately no damage was done, but I was very upset with myself. How could I do something so stupid? Then I put my system safety hat on and started thinking the way I would at work.

If I had done this could someone else do this as well? Was this due to stupidity on my part? (I suppose that depends on whom you ask). One thing I realized is that if I had done this someone else could possibly do it, and using a system approach to safety could help. While there are numerous possible solutions to reduce the likelihood of recurrence, such as barriers, warning flags, moving the spigot, eliminating vehicle traffic from the area, and many others, the main point is that this was a learning event and something that many of us can take to our organizations. I bet if Old MacDonald had been there he could have told me ahead of time how to avoid the incident. What would Old MacDonald say to teams and employees in your organization about ways to make your work systems better and safer? Rather than telling the worker to pay more attention and do a better job, would Old MacDonald be able to tell you a better way to manage safety using a system approach and to make the work system better rather than trying to “fix the worker”?

Thanks for reading, and have a great and safe week!