International Day of Mourning

April 28, 2011, marks Canada's twentieth official observance of the International Day of Mourning. It is surprising how few Canadians seemingly understand this day's general importance or its significance to individuals across all sectors of the workforce.

This day is a time to reflect upon and commemorate the lives of thousands of workers that have been lost through the decades. In 2009 alone, 939 Canadian workers were killed either at work or traveling to work. Earlier this year, following a day's work, several equipment operators parked their side-booms-large, tracked vehicles used to lift and install pipe on pipeline projects. After shutting down their equipment, operators exit their cabs using an installed ladder.

For one worker, this sequence of events had become almost instinctual, having done so thousands of times over twenty plus as an operator. But on this particular night, this seasoned worker noticed he had forgotten something in the cab and doubled back to the side boom. Instead of utilizing the ladder to enter the cab, as he had done thousands of times previously, he climbed the side boom's tracks on the opposite side. He then maneuvered his way across the counterweight rails between the tightly secured counterweight and the side-boom cab. Searching for the misplaced item, he unknowingly hit a lever that released the side boom's massive counterweight.

The 5,000-pound metal object slowly inched its way down the rails toward the operator's position, crushing him in the process. One might be quick to conclude that this tragic incident could have been easily prevented had the operator simply returned to the cab by the proscribed safe route.

No one could have known that he would choose to make this seemingly minor yet tragic decision or prevent him from making this choice.

How many times in the course of a day does each of us make such seemingly minor decisions, completing ordinary tasks under ordinary circumstances with tools and equipment that are familiar to us? A motorist makes a crucial, split-second decision at a busy intersection to turn left in front of quickly advancing traffic.

A homeowner props a ladder against the house in unstable soil, thinking the job will just take her a second. A farmhand works around unshielded mechanical parts on equipment because the shields just get in the way and slow him down. We have all done similar things at some point in our lives. It is only after something goes wrong that we realize the negative or unintended consequences of our actions.

We conduct almost instantaneous analyses of risk that are all too often biased by our intended goals. Following a poor decision, we often wonder, why did I do that? Our answers never truly satisfy the question, yet we ask it time and again.

Sometimes we feel entirely comfortable in and around our tools and equipment and take shortcuts because in the past we have gotten away with it, providing positive reinforcement for our questionable behaviors.

It is easy to become complacent about safety. No one ever gets hurt around here. Nothing bad will happen. We are human, and humans make mistakes and miscalculations. Trial and error are fundamental aspects of personal growth.

Sometimes fatigue leads us to a momentary lapse in judgment. In almost all cases, when we make a poor decision, we have the chance to right a wrong and hopefully glean some sort of lesson from it. For the equipment operator, the risk of climbing over the side boom and entering a secure space between the cab and the counterweight appeared relatively minor.

But the result of his decision was monumentally tragic. He never had an opportunity to correct his mistake or learn from it. We rely on the training and education we receive from teachers, instructors, elders, and peers to make informed and reasoned decisions.

But when we cross the threshold of that moment when we will make a decision, no amount of education or bureaucratic red tape ultimately prevents us from making our choice. At that critical moment, it's up to each of us individually to not be complacent about our work or to turn a blind eye to an unsafe act.

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