Anchors, pyramids, biases and… stuff

OK, still rambling along about anchor points, so if you are getting heartily sick of me going on about this topic, check back in a couple of days. Yes, I know, I sometimes get stuck on topics… Tyrannosauruses, fruit in funny shapes, you name it.

The reason for this momentary raft of anchor point-related posts is that it just seems to be a ubiquitous topic, wherever you care to look. Yesterday, for instance, we had our instructor’s day for Baumklettern Schweiz, which was interesting – yet to my mind just confirmed how even within a group of highly competent people, there still remains much to be discussed before we start to gain a greater sense of clarity regarding what constitutes an acceptable anchor – and where things get a bit sketchy.

One of the people present in Windisch shared an extremely interesting incident that occurred to him that I would love to share with you, but need to check back with him first whether that would be ok. One point that I find very striking is how the failure mechanisms and the chain of events leading to these system failures are highly diverse.

This in turn got me thinking about why we seem to be struggling so to sort this issue out. It is not as though we are not able to manage a whole range of other job related-risks. Yes, of course there is the high degree of variability when considering tree species, possible defaults, time of year, the vitality of the tree – to name but a few.

But I believe one of the main causes is rooted in our heads and our perception.

Let me explain…

In 1931, H. W. Heinrich proposed the model of a safety triangle in his book Industrial Accident Prevention. You are probably familiar with this model, it is used to this day by work safety and similar organisations – I use it when I am discussing planning for emergency and aerial rescue.

The model has since been expanded and modified, but the basic point it is making remains: we focus upon the tip of the pyramid, the fatality, at our peril, as by doing so we ignore the foundation of the pyramid, which is made up of many near misses and unsafe acts. If we succeed in influencing our behavior, we are de facto mitigating the unsafe acts and are able to change the structure of the whole  pyramid, from the bottom up, reducing the risk of the more serious outcomes in the upper tiers.

I would place poor anchor point selection solidly in the lower two tiers of the pyramid, depending on how bad the call is. So why are we not addressing this matter?

The answer, I suspect, is that we fail to recognize it for what it is, i.e. an unsafe act or a near miss.

One factor that is in play here is confirmation bias. We are not experts in anchor points blowing apart, as usually they do not. Things usually work out just fine. We base the choices we make on past experience, so in that sense, if last time was ok, as was the time before and the time before that, then those past experiences are validating our actions, are creating a confirmation bias that clouds our vision and ability to recognize the fact that we are actually exposing ourselves to an unnecessary level of risk.

Or, in the words of Sir Francis Bacon:

It is true that may hold in these things, which is the general root of superstition; namely, that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss; and commit to memory the one, and forget and pass over the other.

I remember when we were kids, one of my younger brothers put his hand on a hotplate – to dramatic effects. If my recollection serves me well, he merely wanted to check how hot exactly it was. It was hot, was the answer. Did he do it again? Hardly, that once was enough and provided a very strong tactile feedback that indicated that “hand on hotplate” is not good combination. If this sensory feedback is lacking however, or not observed, things are less obvious.

Let’s tackle this issue, discuss it in your team – tomorrow! Anchor points are many things – except a private matter. After all, in case of an anchor point failing, everybody is affected: I have recently spoken to two people who were present when a climber fell out of a tree and they were pretty traumatized by the experience. Do not be shy to question an anchor point of another member of the team if you feel it is not appropriately dimensioned – after all, we all make mistakes and bad calls.

Anchor points: Every. Single. One. Matters.

And do you know what? It can affect every single one of us, no one is safe: probability, fate, Murphy – pick one of your choice – can strike anywhere, they really do not mind whether you are a total newbie or some climbing hotshot who has just won your local comp, gravity remains the same for all of us – and the ground equally hard upon impact.

One of the expanded models of Heinrich’s safety triangle I mentioned above looks like this:

I liked the concept behind this expanded version of Heinrich’s model: there is a rock-solid foundation below the behavioural levels, that encompass unsafe acts and near misses, that – I am paraphrasing a bit here – consist of diligent behavior, awareness, recognition and accountability. Unlike in the image above, I would refer to those foundation levels as Climber Actions.

I am confident that if we succeed in incorporating these into our daily routines and apply them diligently and consistently, we have taken a significant step towards mitigating the risk of anchor point failure.