During the Christmas break I had the opportunity to do a real kiwi boys own adventure, a muster on a high-country station. This involved a mob of 300 sheep, 3 horses, 6 dogs, and 5 nights living in high country huts with no running water, no electricity, and no reception. However, we did get to eat venison steaks as thick as an arm, smoke a freshly caught trout on an open fire, and experience the beauty and majesty of the back country in New Zealand.
I also got to spend some time riding a horse. I have done this twice previously, and both times it was more of the case of the horses riding me. I was nervous, the horses were flighty, and the ground seemed a long way down. No matter what instruction I gave the horses, they just seemed to do whatever they wanted to do. In both cases a riding instructor was present, and I was wearing a helmet.
During the muster I was offered the opportunity to ride a horse again, and for me this was too good to pass up. I could become a real high-country cowboy and not consign myself forever to greenhorn status. A mob of sheep on a riverbed moves at a very slow pace, the horse concerned, called Guiseppe, seemed very mild mannered, and there were three very experienced riders around me. But there was no helmet.
As the General Manager of the Safety Charter, I spend a lot of time preaching about the benefits of a safety-first approach, but what happens when the rubber meets the road? Well, I’ll let those without sin cast the first stone.
As it turned out, riding Giuseppe was like riding a magic carpet. Smooth and easy, he stopped when I said stop, went forward when I said go, and even turned left and right on command. Riding on horseback up a riverbed, gently moving the sheep, and having the flowing water, sky, and mountains as a backdrop was one of the best experiences of my life. In terms of risk versus reward, the reward was more than worth it.
Sitting in my office now, how do I reflect on this incident. All I have are a series of questions, none of which I am sure about the answers. Was I right or wrong to get on that horse, or both? Everything goes swimmingly until it doesn’t, and If I had fallen off and hit my head on a rock would I have a different point of view? Is it ever OK to be working at height without appropriate controls?
Do we have one set of rules when we are responsible for ourselves, and another set when we are responsible for the safety of others? Do we have one set of rules for work, and another set when we are at home or on holiday? Is the risk versus reward algorithm constantly running in our heads, and the reward determining how much risk we are willing to accept?
Do we believe that to be genuine people we must live by the same rules all the time, or risk being labelled as hypocrites? Or do we believe that humanity is far more complex shades of gray than black and white? The cultural context here is the “she’ll be right” or “Number 8 wire” mentally of kiwi’s as a whole. We are perhaps more willing to solve problems on the fly and make use of the resources available rather than delay some enterprise for lack of materials or equipment.
All health and safety professionals face this dilemma every day. We all accept that a certain amount of risk is OK, or normal. We drive cars, ride bikes, walk across roads, swim at beaches, all in the knowledge that these activities can be fatal. We even have national statistics to remind us of this fact.
Where does this leave us? I do not know the answers to any of the questions I have raised, or even if there are “correct” answers. The important thing to me is to be able to ask the questions, have an open and honest discussion about them, and be willing to learn and grow.
Paul Duggan, General Manager