Always Have Your Mind in the Cage

I had just had a talk with Eric after church.  Eric is a young fellow who worked for Canada Training Group as a teenager in our youth development program.  His parents are friends and we play in a gospel group.

I have to admit to a certain amount of embarrassment at church this morning as I was reminded of a missing part of Eric’s finger, which he had lost in a router accident: the second injury to the same hand.

The first happened at his first job out of high school; a truck was backing up to a dock, and for some reason, he put his hand in the wrong place and had two fingers crushed between the truck box and the dock.

We were all very worried because he is a talented musician and, although he can play rhythm and bass guitar, his true musical love is the drums.  As it turns out, his hand healed, and he was able to return to the top natural form with which he was gifted.

The router finger has also healed since the accident, and he was playing drums at the service this morning so, thankfully, neither injury truly impaired his talent.

I should have done this after the first accident, but I never thought of it so, this morning after the service, I took him aside and privately talked to him about mentally controlling our bodies and our hands.

Our hands end up being involved in most of our accidents.  Understand that the further your hands are from the body, and the faster you move them, the more danger they find themselves in.  And this is very important; when you impulsively move your hands or any other part of your body without prior thought and judgment, you are taking extreme risk.  It is all to easy to be physically impulsive, and it takes years of careful thought to overcome that behaviour.

I asked Eric the same question I’ve asked hundreds of other accident victims: “At the moment of the accident, what was going through your mind?”.  He could not remember the first accident, but he certainly remembered his second: he was thinking about all the things he had to do next.  His mind was way ahead of his body, meaning his body was operating uncontrolled.

When we work around energies – electrical, chemical, thermal, flammable, stored or, in Eric’s case, kinetic – it is crucial to be in control of our minds and, therefore, our bodies.

Because Eric is a musician, I should have identified his nature after his first accident.  I asked him, “Is your head full of tunes”, and he replied, “Yes, all the time”.  When you find yourself the supervisor of a musical person, understand that you have an individual who has a mind full of distractions.  They fight all their life against that extraneous chatter.

I related the story of him to the European circus performer – a big cat trainer – whose son decided he also wanted to work in the circus with big cats.  He gave his son only one piece of advice: Always have your mind in the cage.

Isn’t that a brilliant image?  You are in the centre of a cage with eight or nine cats around you; lions and tigers moving at your command from hoop to hoop; some hoops in flames, other cats growling impatiently on their stands; some cats behind you; and everything surrounded by a gage in front of an amazed and cheering audience. 

Can you imagine the importance of paying attention to those dangers, which could turn on you at any moment.  That’s having your mind in the cage.

Afterward, I told Eric’s father about my conversation with his boy, and he gave me some critical information I wish I had when I talked to Eric.  Several months before the router accident, he had been watching Eric use the tool and, after a bit of observation, felt compelled to warn Eric he was not showing enough respect for the machine.

It is said that a smart person learns from their mistakes while a wise person learns from the mistakes of others.  It is also said that good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.

A very good friend, who is 62 and has been a safety professional for many years, recently broke a big toe in two places (“At a fish fry, Dave, at a bloody fish fry!”).  He had been holding a 4x4 piece of ¾ plywood vertically when it slipped, and a corner split his toe to the bone.  When I asked him what was going through his mind at the moment of the accident, he said, “How good that damn fish was going to taste”.

Whether we are an industrial worker, a hobbyist in our garage or just driving through traffic, the roaming thoughts, intruding images, invading sounds and associated mental distractions that comprise our mental menagerie are all tickets to the emergency clinic.  Wisdom, judgment and experience all fall before these.

Eric is lucky that his hand was not permanently mangled in either of those accidents.  With my experience as a safety professional, the fact that a young man in my life had such an accident rides on my shoulders: I could have done better.

Use this column to look around your own life: at coworkers, your children, nieces, nephews and the children of your friends.  If they are young, then they need to be trained.  Regret has a bitter taste.

Until next time, be ready, be careful and be safe.