Learning how to fall

Tim Meyer

Accidents happen. Some things are inevitable. You can’t control everything.

These phrases are all common utterances when we talk about improving safety, quality or performance. As a father, I know these all too well. My daughter will fall down, she will scrape her knee, and she will learn. It is not a question of whether she will fall, but when. And I know she will fall down again and again!

In Chicagoland’s annual season of “wintry mix,” slips, trips and falls on snow and ice are inevitable. Our attention will drift, there will be black ice, our footing will give way, and we will start to topple. We usually just hope that the ground won’t be too hard when we land.

But what if there were a way to “manage the consequences” of a fall on the ice?

Enter the Slip Simulator. Designed by Virginia Tech, it’s been in use by UPS to train their delivery agents. Participants strap into an overheard suspension harness, slip on shoes with a slick Teflon-coated sole and then walk out onto a smooth, flat surface freshened up with oil. Guess what? You’re going to fall! Fortunately, the harness catches you and prevents a twisted ankle, broken bone or just a very sore backside. Los Alamos, Hanford, Savannah River and, most recently, Brookhaven have each invested in these devices.

What’s the point?

Just as in martial arts, the goal is to “learn how to fall.” Or rather, learn to notice when you begin to fall and how to recover your balance or adjust your position so you land gracefully.

My colleagues at Brookhaven tell me that after just 10 minutes in the Slip Simulator, your winter-parking-lot-crossing skills blossom. In fact, in part due to this training, Brookhaven has had zero slips and falls on its icy site so far this season. Hats off!

While Fermilab will not be getting a Slip Simulator anytime soon, the concept of accepting that errors will happen and learning to manage the consequences is very relevant to all of us. It is also a bedrock principle of human performance improvement (HPI), a process-improvement methodology that focuses on improving outcomes and enhancing safety. As a parent, I cannot prevent my daughter from falling, but I can do my best to be sure she doesn’t fall in traffic or off the top of the playground equipment, where the consequences could be much more serious.

At Fermilab, we see an advantage to widespread awareness of and training in HPI. Senior management spent a weekend in January undergoing the full two-day training, and employees across the site are being encouraged to go through training as well.

So in addition to an annual winter weather safety advisory to drivers and pedestrians, my message to you is that, even for all the things that we take for granted will happen, consider that there could be a creative (or perhaps silly) way to reduce the ultimate impact. Do this, and we’ll have a lab full of safe, productive and happy employees showcasing HPI!