Not all risks can be seen from the surface

As an Australian, I have grownup acutely aware of dangerous things living in the natural world around me. From snakes to spiders to jellyfish, from a young age we are taught to assess the risks in our environment whenever we head into the great outdoors.

Every now and then, we see news reports of people being taken by crocodiles in the north. Being a southerner, thankfully they are not part of my world, but I often wonder what risk assessment was undertaken by that individual prior to fishing or swimming or whatever other activity they were doing prior to becoming lunch for a hungry crocodile?

For those of you not familiar with these monsters, they tend to be ambush hunters, lying in wait until something appears in their range and then …. SNAP! So surely one would think that if you saw one of these creatures in the water where you were headed, your risk mitigation strategies would be fairly strict. However, what if someone just told you that there might be a croc in the water? Would that change your thinking? Would you be happy swimming in an area where you might get eaten or is it only where you know you are pretty well going to be eaten that you totally eliminate the risk and stay onshore?

So what does this have to do with risks in the workplace you say??

Good question?

In Fire Services, we are great at managing the risks that we see in front of us. We constantly assess the state of a building, the intensity of the flames, the structural integrity of a recently crashed car…. the list is pretty well endless. By and large its a risk that’s managed well, as evidenced by the relatively minuscule occurrence of injuries in the workplace.

Is this just the crocodile that we can see though?

What if I told you, that firefighters still die on the job and the single biggest cause has nothing to do with the crocodile that we can see. The number one cause of morbidity and mortality in firefighters worldwide is heart attacks, followed closely by manual handling / slips and falls. No-one wants to die at work, or sustain a major injury, yet it happens consistently and this risk doesn’t seem to be as well regarded as the big red flames in front of us.

Is this the crocodile underwater thats lurking and waiting for us?

We know that heart attacks can by and large be prevented in the workplace. Through proper fitness and wellness programs, through good nutrition …. However, the research is telling us that we can do better, and the underlying triggers exist in the environment — if only we had the tools and the impetus to look for them:

  • Blood thickens: As we get hot, we dehydrate and our blood gets thicker. This means we cannot effectively move blood to the skin for cooling, or to provide oxygen and fuel to the working muscles. Think about trying to pump concrete through a straw. This results in heart rates and systolic blood pressure rising while our diastolic pressure drops.
  • Gait variability increases: As we get hot and tired we start to trip over our feet. This is a neuromuscular response to increasing body temperatures.
  • Strength decreases: As our muscles start to be starved of oxygen and fuel, they start to weaken making every task harder.
  • Cognition drops: We start to lose our ability to make critical decisions. Our reaction time decreases and our working memory declines.
  • Immune and inflammatory activity increases: We see an immune response which can lead to heart attacks and even changes to our long term ability to manage stress.

I challenge the safety world to start looking not at the crocodile in the water, but evaluating the risks below the surface as those are the ones that always seem to get you!

Dr Anthony Walker

Dr Anthony Walker

I'm a human performance specialise, using cutting edge research and science to optimise the performance of workers in high pressure environments.

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