Monday, May 17, 2010

Letter to the Safety Committee: Speedwell Cavern

Dear Safety Committee;

I had the pleasure today of visiting Speedwell Cavern. Despite its name it is not a cavern at all, but rather an old mine: its claim to fame is that you travel through it by boat in a flooded mining tunnel. Quite exotic. But what was really interesting about it in the end (for the tunnel was monotonous and the small cavern at its end offered nothing to write about) was how the tour was done. It was, if you will, Safety, The Old Way.

This was a lead mine in the late eighteenth century, and the method devised to get the ore out was to flood one of the tunnels and hand a boat along it. Dry, the tunnel was about 6 feet high; flooded its arched, uneven roof of stone is about four feet high in the centre. The modern boat (four feet wide in a five foot wide tunnel) has an electric motor at each end, and seats for the tourists.

Before you descend to the underground artificial river, they pass out hard hats. I have to say I have been jaded by the Corporate Safety Culture, which makes unnecessary gestures to lull the visitor into a sense of security. I thought, "Oh, yes, the usual safety equipment: probably overkill, but it protects the odd visitor who's accident prone." But no! As I descended the 106 wet, slippery stairs, I found myself, like an idiot, checking with my head the contours of the remarkably low ceiling many times. Gee, I thought, I can't believe the ceiling is this low... this is like going down in the real thing.

At the bottom our young guide, James, straddled the boat and held it in place by leaning against the tunnel wall while we boarded. Then he walked deftly up the edge of the boat to the bow, and, after telling us some good jokes and warning us to keep our hands inside the gunwales, switched on the motor. Then he, with no hard hat on, sat facing backwards in the bow talking to us. It was truly an impressive feat of skill: using his hands against the tunnel walls to steer the boat in a direction that was behind him, he kept up a steady patter of facts and stories while the tunnel roof whizzed over our protected (and his unprotected) heads.

And this was when I realized I had left the realm of Corporate Safety. Because, as you know, safe operations are never based on the skill and bravado of the guide, nor on common sense. I had found a gem that has somehow survived from the past. Safe operations are today always based on redundant systems. Instead of one guide there are two. Everyone wears safety equipment, especially the guides. In the even of engine failure, a second engine stands by or a handline along the tunnel walls provides a way to get back. It was quite apparent that in this case, engine failure would mean we all simply hand-pushed the boat back. I felt valued.

As we motored along through the tunnel a direct hit from one of the outcrops whizzing my head would have knocked me out without that hat. Furthermore, as I looked at James in the front of the boat there, jovially regaling us with tales, and the uneven tunnel roof zooming over his head from behind, I realized that he pretty much knew exactly how high he could raise his head. But there was no overhead hoop on the boat to cue him, no safety system in place. I was watching skill at work, not a well-designed system.

At various points of interest he would reach down and switch off the electric motor. As the boat glided quietly along he'd tell us the tale of some mining mishap or another, and that done, he'd reach down and turn the switch on again. Oh-ho, I though: no deadman switch! Had the Corporate Safety philosophy been at work here, the motor would only be on only as long as he was there to hold down a spring-loaded switch; if he miscalculated and was whacked by an overhead outcrop, if he tumbled over backwards and fell out in front of the oncoming boat, the motor would cut out. But not in this case. It was a case of safety being based on someone's strength, balance and grace. Don't our analysts always see that as a safety weakness?

And it just got better. We reached the far cavern and all got out to view it. After five minutes it was time to reload. James got into the boat first, and launched off when when we had all got in. Yep, you guessed it: whether we left someone behind was dependent on his good counting, or the good shouting of the forgotten passenger--not on having a sweep person, or a rule that the guide is the last one off the wharf.

The bottom line here is that I so admire his employers because they trust him. It is evident that if something goes wrong , they trust he'll be able to figure out what to do, and the passengers might be involved in solving it too. In fact they trust people in general: not to stick their heads up too high in the boat, not to stick their hands out where they can be chopped off.

Just thought you guys should know: your reach is mighty, but it does not yet go everywhere.