Be Careful Out There

crewwcall2This week, I had a talk with Scott Tiner  on THE WEEK on rAVe Radio. This interview followed Scott’s column in rAVe ED [Education] about safety and the tragedy in Alabama. We talked about safety in our industry, which, judging from the news, is declining. Since then, I have done a lot of thinking about why that might be. During the interview, which I would suggest that you listen to (if not for my comments then certainly for Scott’s), I posed a number of questions.

Now I’d like to pose them to all of you.

(Please note that I do have an opinion about all of these things, but I’m not necessarily right. So I really would like feedback from all of you on what I perceive to be a growing issue in our industry.)

Are there more accidents, especially injury accidents, happening in our industry than in years past?

Two theories were proposed for this: first, that there are not more accidents happening, but that we tend to hear about them more because we are all so connected today. It is certainly possible that these accidents were happening all along, but until we were also connected via the Internet, many of us never heard about them.

Or, is our business in fact getting scarier?

Personally, I think it may be a combination of the two.

The connectivity side of this we may not be able to change. And we certainly may not want to. In fact, the news of these kinds of accidents may serve to remind us that we do in fact work in a dangerous business. Thinking back over my years in Staging, one thing I’m certain of: no matter how concerned we all were about safety every day, we were never more openly so than after we had heard about (or even witnessed) an accident. So maybe the fact that we now hear more about them is actually a good thing.

Or maybe we actually ARE having more accidents, and, if so, it is necessary for us as professionals to ask ourselves why. And then to do something about it.

Let’s say, just for a moment, that we are in fact having more accidents than in years past. In that case, it would be incumbent upon us to look at causes:

Lack of proper training?

One of the first things any industry would look at would be training. We would need to ask ourselves if we are still offering proper training to the people who are doing our work in the field. One of the things I have noted over the past years is an increase in training classes offered for the administrative and planning portions of our industry. We have courses in project management (many of them), in team supervision, in networking, in computer and design skills. But much of the training that we offer has moved away from direct hands-on, at least in the kind of training that is available outside weeklong formal academies. Managers, think back over your careers. Were we offering more hands-on training in the past than we are now?

Standards slipping?

Another question we would need to ask is whether or not we are letting our standards for workmanship slip. We’ve seen this happen in the past in other industries, with Detroit in the ‘70s coming to mind. During a time when industries are changing, as the American motor industry was due to the onslaught of Japanese cars, standards often slip as we accustom ourselves to new technologies and new ways of doing business.

Lack of proper background?

Another thing that can happen when new technologies enter an industry is that we focus on them so closely that we allow our skill set in other areas to decline. In the past 15 years, in our industry, we have focused to a very high degree on bringing people into the industry from the computer and telecommunications fields.

I entered the industry at a time of great change. It was my great fortune. I was the first we had a “computer guy” in the audiovisual company I worked for. But because it was a time of such great technological change, and nobody had any advantage of long experience over anybody else, many of us were entering the industry from many different fields. We came from rock ‘n roll, from facility management, from construction, from video production and from radio. We brought into the industry skill sets that became useful in a peripheral way. In a time when we are so focused on recruiting from one industry, are we losing those additional skills?

More dangerous equipment or technology?

Another place we would look for new industry accidents is in the technology that we work with. Has it in fact become more dangerous? Personally, I don’t think this is it. Most of what we work with seems to run on lower voltages, produce less heat and even accomplish its task with fewer components than in the past. But to be honest, it is also one of the questions we still need to ask.

Insufficient oversight?

Another place one would look for these types of causes would be the failure of management to exercise sufficient oversight over the field, or to have the knowledge and skill set necessary to adequately supervise fieldworkers. Frankly, we need to examine the idea that an aging management population supervises less.

Background knowledge:

One of the places that I suspect is a cause of at least part of these accidents is a lower level of necessary background knowledge in new field-workers. I am constantly astounded by applicants, even applicants with degrees, that seem to lack skills and fundamentals such as math without a calculator or smart phone in their hands. When I got involved in rigging on the show side, and in installation on the sales side, I was actually afraid of killing people. Twenty-five years later, I still am. So in addition to my calculator, when I am working with physical construction, I am constantly also doing the math in my head, just in round numbers, as a check against what I get from a computer. Is basic education failing us to the point that we will see an increase in industrial accidents because of the installer’s inability to argue with the computer in their head? In other words, are we still able to “check our work?”

I don’t have all the answers, yet, although I will keep looking. But sometimes introspection is a good thing, and I think in a time when our industry is evolving, our business is changing and our mix of skills is being redefined, it is important that we ask ourselves the questions.

Because as our friends on all the cop shows on television say, the most important thing is to go home at the end of the shift — alive.

rAVe Rental [and Staging] contributor Joel R. Rollins, CTS, is general manager of Everett Hall Associates, Inc. and is well known throughout the professional AV industry for his contributions to industry training and his extensive background in AV rental, staging and installation. Joel can be reached at  joelrollins@mac.com