Nancy Pearce

The Psychology Behind the “Would-be Rescuer” for Confined Space Entry

Blog Post created by Nancy Pearce Employee on Feb 12, 2013

I used to (naively) believe that training was the only way to prevent workplace injuries and fatalities.  If I did a great job training workers on the hazards of a particular task and demonstrating and explaining how they could eliminate the risk of injury or fatality, I believed they would follow my advice.

However, after more than 25 years experience, I now understand that while training is important, it is not the complete panacea I was hoping for.   I could provide a great training session and get lots of positive feedback from those participating, only to observe unsafe procedures and unsafe work practices by these same employees several weeks or months later.  So more recently, I have been rethinking the chemistry/engineering aspect of worker safety and have been thinking that if I really wanted to impact worker health and safety, that perhaps  I should go back to school for a behavioral psychology degree!  I have come to realize that technical information and training alone does not prevent workers from taking risks. 

So imagine my excitement when I read an article recently on breaking the chain of fatalities and near misses in the “would-be rescuers” in confined space entry.   The article addresses the psychology behind those who rush in to confined spaces to rescue victims even after being trained not to do so.   The article is written by another confined space trainer who is apparently equally interested in figuring out the psychology behind the phenomenon of such risk takers.   The article in the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) journal the Synergistprovides references to several fascinating articles written by psychologists on how humans may be "hard wired" to be altruistic.  The articles indicate that humans derive pleasure from "heroic" acts that they perceive show compassion and empathy.   

So what do we do with this information?  The author recommends that as trainers we may need to point out and discuss the human behavior aspect to our students, explaining that this “impulse” may occur at the time of an emergency.  The student will have to remember that they are fighting a natural human response when the urge to rush in and save the individual who is down in the confined space kicks in.   The author also recommends reminding the student that the act of rushing in not only could make him/her the next victim, but it also may rob the current victim of an opportunity for a viable rescue.   

I encourage you to read the article!   If you have any other thoughts on how to prevent the “would-be rescuer” from jumping into a confined space I would love to hear your suggestions!  

The National Fire Protection Association is developing a Best Practices Document http://www.nfpa.org/aboutthecodes/AboutTheCodes.asp?DocNum=350for confined space entry. This document will address gaps in existing standards and will be more prescriptive in describing things like how to identify potentially toxic atmospheres and select the proper gas monitor for entry and how to include the evaluation of adjacent spaces into your confined space entry program.    This is a document that is looking to go beyond the minimum standards and will provide those looking to develop a “gold star” confined space entry program with the information they need to do so.  Please email me at npearce@nfpa.org for further information and/or leave a comment below for discussion.  I look forward to hearing from you!

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