It’s at its deadliest when we least expect it.
If there’s one thing in this world I really, truly know, it’s complacency. I see where I’ve been subject to it to greater and lesser extents every day of my life, though I don’t recall giving it much thought before being shackled onto the starboard catapult of the USS Valley Forge, following the sixth arrested landing that was the final hurdle in my quest for the coveted “Wings of Gold.”
The aircraft was a venerable F-9F-8 Cougar, the swept-wing version of the Korea-era Panther, the very essence of what several generations had come to expect from Bethpage, NY’s revered Grumman “Iron Works.” Simple, rugged, and unassuming in comparison with the heart-stopping array of fighters flown by the Air Force, the Cougar handled the demotion from frontline carrier fighter to incubator of clueless students with the grace of the thoroughbred she was.
So here was I, a hotshot jackass, slamming the throttle to the stop with the bravado of a battle-hardened warrior and giving the catapult officer my very best “Smilin’ Jack” salute that indicated my readiness for takeoff…only I had made one slight omission in the performance of my checklist. Instead of setting the elevator trim to its takeoff (nearly neutral) position, I left it in its nose-high approach setting. Thus the instant the catapult fired and I was thrown back into the seat from the acceleration, the nose snapped high into the air, launching me off the bow in a stall.
“The airplane’s broken,” I told myself, envisioning a very short trip to the water where I would be overrun and keelhauled by the boat.
Then over the radio came the laconic voice of the Air Boss sitting up in Pri-Fly. “Push the nose over, you idiot, then reset the trim.”
I did, and it worked, but all the way back to the base I agonized over the world-class tail-chewing that surely awaited me. Along with that, however, I recognized the roles that both complacency and luck had played in the episode, and the fact that whereas luck was ephemeral, complacency was always and forever there.
As it was, when I got back, my instructor had taped a trim button to my locker, suggesting that I take it home and paste it next to the toilet. This I did…and I’ve carried it with me from toilet to toilet ever since, just to remind me that pride, arrogance, and complacency have no business in even the least challenging of my activities.
So what does this have to do with us and our business?
It’s about us and the traps we set for ourselves through our pride, arrogance, and complacency. As I realized then and from the all-too-many near misses since, it’s nice to have luck as a companion, but it’s not a bankable commodity you can write a check against.
It’s one thing to take shortcuts when you’re on your own, but when it comes to the safety of those who place their trust in your judgment, it’s altogether different. It’s why we have procedures captured in those shorthand capsules we call checklists, but those can lead you down that primrose path if you don’t have an established program for reviewing them and reassessing their relevance to current conditions. One way to assure this is to see that your supervisors conduct daily safety meetings featuring in-depth discussions of various safety issues.
In waste operations, no less than in carrier aviation, there’s no substitute for adherence to procedures, and like the takeoff checklist I ignored at the very time that the margin for error was at its narrowest, it’s your responsibility to see that they are followed by all hands…including yourself.