Free as a Bird

The realities of working at height

Share:

Today Andrew jumped off the tallest manmade structure in the Southern Hemisphere. The Skytower, in the New Zealand city of Auckland, stands a whopping 328m tall. It’s the ultimate leap of faith, plummeting towards the Central Business District at a speed of 85 kilometres per hour. The Skyjump – as it’s called – is a fan-assisted base-jump, where the fall is controlled by a wire rapidly unspooling from a gigantic air-braked drum. Strapped into a full body harness, and with a solid safety briefing complete, he felt as free (and safe) as a bird.

Hanging by a thread hundreds of metres in the air from buildings such as the Skytower, Burj Khalifa or Taipei 101 may sound like the kind of death-defying stunt best performed by Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan, but for many industrial workers and engineers, this is an average morning, this is their office and everyday workspace.

“this bird we cannot change! Well, we believe that there is a way, we just need to understand the psychology”

Adrenalin seekers

The people who actually enjoy working in these kinds of environments are pretty rare. We remember a chap called Jonny, a good friend of Darren and a very experienced rock-climbing instructor. He was addressing a group of around 30 people one morning just before he took them into the Bavarian Alps for a spot of klettersteig (climbing and walking). Now, aside from being an engaging adventure training instructor, Jonny was also interested in psychology. He used to tell people how he would conduct a simple psychometric test on all of us whilst we were in the mountains.

Jonny believed that people fit into just three personality types once they get into the mountains, he told us. The “Rock Hoppers”, “The Shufflers” and “The Rest”. Sure enough he was right, once we got to the really scary bits the rock hoppers wanted to quite literally leap from rock to rock and the shufflers just edged along the rock as they were scared to even stand up. The rest followed Jonny’s instructions very precisely. We see similar categories of personality types in other areas of safety performance, and people’s behaviour when they are at height is a very clear differentiator.

These things tend to be more driven by genetics, the nature element of our personality and not nurture. And as the famous Lynrd Skynrd song goes, “this bird we cannot change!” Well we believe that there is a way, we just need to understand the psychology and rituals of this kind of performance.

Our ability as humans to estimate risk is almost laughably bad when compared to research based statistical risk. I’m sure we have all been on flights next to a nervous flyer, maybe you are one yourself, yet this is by far the safest form of travel available even today. Have you ever met someone scared of cars? And of course, there’s that shark thing again. Yet there are many more people that die each year whilst just going for a swim in the ocean or playing on the beach. Anyone scared of beaches?

When we think about working at height, our brains love to correlate height with risk, yet in reality, the height you are working at has absolutely no bearing on your likelihood of falling. Equally, if someone is falling from 20 metres, they may as well be falling from 200 metres, the chance of death from a 20 metre fall is already around 95%. That’s before we consider landing on uneven ground. Once we start to fall, it’s gravity that’s in control of our outcome.

We catastrophically underestimate falls from low to medium heights. This is the kind of work that we all think of as routine and low risk – such as work from a stepladder or small work platform – especially for workers accustomed to work at higher levels. Ironically, its these low to medium heights where we see workers eschewing helmets and other PPE where this equipment will provide its maximum benefit. Furthermore, falls at low to medium height give our bodies much less time to react and try to protect ourselves on landing, or opportunities to grab hold of something to slow or steady our fall.

“we can effectively reframe life saving equipment as something that gives workers the absolute freedom to do what they are so good at doing, safely”

Fortunately, when carried out properly, working at height is actually one of the simplest risks to minimise in the industrial workplace. The use of latch-on harnesses and training on the proper use and placement of equipment associated with work at height is incredibly easy to communicate and for workers to implement. The problem is that very often workers feel constrained, restricted or inhibited by these procedures and devices.

Device perspective

Do you remember when you were given your very first pager or mobile phone? Originally, these devices were the preserve of medical professionals and high flyers in business, functioning as a tether for organisations to always have a contact with their employees, to get hold of them 24/7 and keep tabs on them even when working away from company HQ. We can both remember in the past how we used to dread our pagers going off or getting a call or buzz late at night. Today there are more mobile devices on the planet than people, and more than one in every two people using a mobile phone. Why? Because we now use them as devices that set us free, allow us to work flexibly both in terms of time and location and have made our lives infinitely more convenient.

That psychological shift changed those devices from something we had to actively remember to charge up and take with us, to devices we now quite literally feel physical discomfort to be separated from. If we can make that same paradigm shift with safety procedures and devices whilst working at height, we can effectively reframe this life saving equipment as something that actually gives workers the absolute freedom to do what they are so good at doing, safely. That satisfying click of a carabiner snapping securely onto a rope or metal structure can be used not just as a physical anchor, but also a psychological anchor that triggers an entire state of mind, or schema, that can activate a robust loop of behaviours. This should be our aim for improving and creating such automated behaviours surrounding work at height.

These triggers, or cues, are incredibly powerful and for some elite performers they are even necessary in order to do their best work. In a recent interview, Professor Dean Simonton, a leading expert in creative productivity, describes how the poet Fredrich von Schiller required the smell of rotting apples to trigger his most creative schema, even going to the extent of keeping apples in his desk drawer or taking one with him. Thankfully, Prof Simonton’s own personal creativity cue is a little more familiar and sociable to most of us, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. A familiar cue to most of us will be stepping into our car, pulling the seatbelt across ourselves, hearing the familiar click, the solid thud as we pull the door closed, the smell of the leather seats and the comforting rumble as we turn the key. Instantly, our driving schema is activated which brings with it a different perception of risk, enhanced spatial awareness and cognisance of the responsibility we have in piloting a twoton lump of metal at high speed.

Freedoms of constraint

Furthermore, sometimes a little constraint allows us to feel freer and more confident than a blank canvas. Even when the world’s best team athletes like Michael Jordan or Cristiano Ronaldo are given a so called ‘free role’ to express themselves on the field, great managers like Sir Alex Ferguson and Phil Jackson recognise that providing a simple framework and guidelines to work within is actually the best way to maximise the creative abilities of these elite performers. Even the most abstract of creative talents such as Gaudi, Monet or Dali provided themselves with definite restrictions to work within, whether it be the media they used, the limits of what is architecturally possible to build or even a time limitation by which a project must be completed.

In all of these cases, the imposition of a small number of definite rules actually leads to far more productive and creative expressions than would ever have been dreamt up in a complete carte blanche scenario. When we go beyond tired and stale training videos and embrace the modern age of elite performance psychology, we can apply what we have learned from studying the greats and bring it right into our workers’ Tuesday morning schema.

Summary

For our valued colleagues who work at height, we want that harness, safety line and carabiner to activate a schema of freedom that only a constraint can give us. When workers hear the click of latching on, or feel the slight tug of a safety line, we want that to be a reminder that whilst those things are there to protect them, everything else becomes so easy and free. Once it becomes a positive feeling to reposition a ladder, workers no longer feel the desire to over reach, in the same way that a great artist must let part of a painting dry, or wait for the weather to clear to continue a masterpiece.

Fundamentally, it is about taking pride in the process and instilling that this will naturally bring about the glory of the outcome. Working at height is perhaps the clearest example of where most senior managers and executives will acknowledge that they simply could not do what these workers consider to be routine. Working at height specialists are exactly that, they are special, the airborne forces of the construction world. Yet, we continue to subject them to the same style and format of training as the rest of our workforce and then act surprised when these people take no heed of these warnings and instructions.

It’s time to realise that someone who fearlessly pilots a tower crane or washes the windows of a skyscraper is fundamentally not going to be shocked or scared out of bad practices, especially when they receive daily validation that what they are currently doing is effective. There are much better ways of influencing behaviour and managing performance these days and Jonny, our rock climbing instructor, understood this perfectly to make sure that all three personality types were well looked after and cared for in the mountains with him.