Frequency Illusion or Grim Reality?

July 12, 2018
Risk Management

Have you ever experienced frequency illusion? An example of frequency illusion, is when you buy a new car, and you suddenly see the same car everywhere - or when a pregnant woman suddenly notices other pregnant women everywhere she goes (my wife experienced this phenomenon with all three of our kids). Scientists say that it’s a passive experience, where our brain seeks out information that’s related to us, but we believe there has been an actual increase in the frequency of those occurrences. 

This past week, I experienced frequency illusion in relation to people working at heights. I was taking a general industry OSHA refresher course, and the “Working at Heights” safety category apparently struck a chord with my subconscious. Perhaps this occurred because I was a “Truckie” (a firefighter assigned to a ladder truck) in a previous life, where working from elevated positions was part of the job (I enjoyed climbing those ladders).  

I experienced my first frequency illusion early one morning while leaving the gym where I work out. As I approached a set of double doors to exit the facility, my eye caught a slight movement. As my vision adjusted, I saw a worker standing on an A-frame ladder, a few feet outside the doors. This may not sound all that unusual, except the worker was dressed in black, it was 6:15am, and it was completely dark outside. If not for detecting movement, I would have pushed open those doors and possibly knocked the worker off his ladder. I thought, “Why isn’t anyone helping this person. Doesn’t this company provide safety training?” 

A few days later I was driving home along the I-4 Ultimate Improvement Project (a re-design of 21 miles of freeway), going 5 miles an hour, when I witnessed a worker stepping out of a man-lift onto a newly poured pier cap that was about 70 feet above the ground. The worker was wearing a fall protection harness, but it was not attached to a fall arresting system! Yikes – made me cringe. 

Finally, on the last day of my refresher class, I happened to stop at a local supermarket where I noticed an extension ladder in front of the store. It reached up to the roof. The ladder was set at a good climbing angle and the feet were protected. In fact, it was even secured with rope so that it would not slip. The issue however, was that the ladder was extended with only one rung above the roof line and there were at least another 4 or 5 rungs of extension available. Ladders 101 teaches you to always extend a ladder at least 3 feet above the upper landing surface, as this provides a hand hold for the worker on the way up and down. 

I talk a lot about systems failing, and as a result, employees getting hurt. It’s hard to determine from the limited situational information in my examples if a safety system was in place. However, each example clearly illustrates a lack of situational awareness on part of the workers. Usually when awareness issues are present, it’s an indication that the overall safety system has gaps.  

How many poor safety decisions are made on a daily basis, without any authority figure taking notice?  

I don’t have an answer, but I can only hope my observations were more a product of frequency illusion and not the grim reality hiding in plain sight. 

Josh Densberger

Josh began his career as a Firefighter for the Orange County Fire Rescue Department in Florida. He taught the principles of fire science and safety at Seminole State College. He held the position of Corporate Safety Director at Waste Pro, and is currently Corporate Safety Manager at MSE Group. Josh earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from The University of Wyoming and a Master’s degree in Fire and Emergency Management from Oklahoma State University.

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