Friday, 13 March 2015

"I do this all the time”. 09.03.15

The closest I’ve ever come to a sudden, violent death was at work. We were supposed to fell a line of trees growing along the edge of a thicket. Everything was perfect: the weather was fine; the ground was clear; we had the right gear; the trees were a manageable size.

I put a beak in the first tree (that’s a little wedge-shaped cut at the front to direct the fall). I started to make the back cut, the cut that actually fells the tree. Next thing I know, there is a WOOSH right by my face and the tree is horizontal.

It’s not supposed to go like that.

The beak and back cut method creates a wooden hinge that guides and controls the fall. Trees are supposed to (relatively) slowly though inexorably lie themselves down. What this tree had done was snap vertically right through the middle for about 3’, then crack sideways and fall down, using the 3’ high stump as a fulcrum. It had done it so quickly that not only I had not had the time to get out of the way, but I hadn’t even seen it happen. I had felt it, though. The “woosh” was the bottom of the tree whizzing maybe an inch away from my face, propelled by the entire weight of the tree. 

Now, I love chainsaws, but I respect them too. I’ve often been mocked for being a stickler for health and safety, but I can’t help the feeling that if I’m handling a ball of rotating death I ought to be sensible about it. When I decked that tree, I was working precisely in the position the manuals tell you (see diagram). Had I been working an inch to the left, I would have caught a tree under the jaw. I might not have died. I might have simply have had my neck broken or my jaw ripped off.

Thing is, the tree looked perfectly normal. There was nothing visible that suggested that it was going to act like that. It looked like an easy tree to fell. It could have driven me to cut corners, to prioritise speed over safety. Instead, I was doing things the right way because it was the right way to do them; the manual told me so. I was blindly following instructions. I had never had the chance before to see what happens if you break the rules and things go wrong; instructors don’t generally engineer horrible chainsaw accidents to demonstrate the importance of safe systems of work. Most of the time, you can cut corners a bit and get away with it. That day following protocol saved me.

Without that little mishap, I might have never had proof that the protocol was there for a reason. It makes me think about all the time we discount rules because we have never seen the cost of breaking them – our parents’ or grandparent’s wisdom, all the dos and don’ts you grow up with and half the time don’t know the reasons for. Sure, there are plenty of rules and traditions that don’t seem to have any connection to practical considerations; they are little more than superstitions or habits. Throwing spilt salt over your shoulder does not in fact blind the Devil. There are also lots of rules that once used to have practical reasons, but have long since lost them. A lot of religious food restrictions fall into this category. We can break this kind of rules and never come to any harm.

But what about the rest of them? What about the rules that are there to protect us from something that hardly ever happens, but when it does can severely harm us? We can eat undercooked pork (or have unprotected sex, or text while driving, or take a shortcut down the alleyway with the bad reputation…) on a regular basis without anything bad ever happening to us. If we never suffer any consequences, we may believe that these rules are pointless. If we do learn by experience, that knowledge may cost us too dearly.

“Don’t worry, it’s ok, I do this all the time…”

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