“For fools rush in where angels fear to tread…”. Sage words indeed, which I wish I had known about and practiced before my two failed marriages and subsequent financial settlements I had to pay out. But I digress… the phrase was written by the English writer Alexander Pope (1644-1744) in his poem, “An Essay on Criticism” way back in 1711. This is the same poem that gave us other famous quotations, including "To err is human, to forgive divine" and "A little learning is a dang'rous thing," (frequently misquoted as "A little knowledge is a dang'rous thing.").
The phrase “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” (or various iterations of it) has gone on to be used by a variety of well-known people, including among others:
Abraham Lincoln who cited the phrase in his speech made at Peoria, Illinois October 16, 1854.
"Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)" was also the title of a 1940’s song written by Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom, sung by Frank Sinatra, Ricky Nelson and many others.
and in more recent times, the line “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” appeared in Bob Dylan's song "Jokerman"
Relevance to Safety This phrase “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread…” has been on my mind over the past few months, as I’m tending to see or hear about a spate of incidents occurring to either first respondents or Investigators who turn up to actually investigate an incident. Instead of stopping to assess if the hazards have been controlled, there appears to be a tendency lately for some to go blindly rushing in… and then lo and behold… the first respondents and/or Investigators become the subject of an investigation when they too get hurt or exposed to the hazard.
Following a rockfall in an underground mine, the Investigators and Mine Manager went down to examine the scene and breached fatal risk control protocols when they found themselves beneath unsupported ground (thereby exposing themselves to the hazard of a further rockfall).
While examining a lathe while investigating an incident where an operator had received a deep laceration, the Investigator suffered a partial amputation of his pointer finger.
The first respondents attempted to render immediate assistance to an operator who was non-responsive in a vessel being purged of oxygen without donning their breathing apparatus first.
An Investigator proceeded to ascend a structure almost 5 metres high to examine the incident scene, with no working at heights controls and no consideration that the weather at the time (driving rain) would make the metal surface even more slippery.
An Investigator heard about an arc from a power source and proceeded to turn the switch on to see “if it happened again”.
Two Investigators proceeded to enter a fumigation zone to start taking photographs, without ensuring HazMat had cleared the area of the chemical contamination (methyl bromide).
An electrician called out to investigate a fault in a conveyor did not isolate the plant before opening a control panel and working on it.
An Investigator sustained a compound fracture of his leg when examining an incident scene where a vehicle had rolled onto its side. With no thought of stability or propping up requirements, he entered the area when the vehicle settled back onto his leg.
After venturing into a tropical environment and not heeding the warnings about covering standing water and wearing clothing to cover the body at all times, an Investigator spent four weeks in critical condition in Intensive Care when he contracting dengue fever which developed into life threatening dengue hemorrhagic fever (resulting in bleeding, low levels of blood platelets and blood plasma leakage).
Never forget… For your own sake and that of others, Step Number #1 when arriving at any incident site is to stop and assess “Is it safe?”. Ask (and validate) “Have all the hazards been controlled?”. Before any data is collected, before we move close to the incident scene, it is critical that we stand back and assess exactly what are we dealing with. Remember as well to look at the surrounding environment, not just the exact location where the incident occurred. Verify that there are no threats remaining and assess if controls are required such as ventilation, isolation, propping up plant for stability etc.
All organisations are busy and there is a tendency to want to start the clean-up or recovery operations etc. as soon as possible following an incident so that normal operations can resume. However, to rush in and inspect an incident scene, start taking photographs and record measurements before validating everything is under control is just plain wrong and can indeed be dangerous. No matter the perceived pressure to collect data in-situ such as photographs and measurements so the recovery, clean-up etc. can proceed - please ensure you have the presence of mind to always stop and assess every incident scene first.
For any Investigator, the quote “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread...” (which I’ll always associate with my matrimonial failures) should always go hand-inhand with the proverb “look before you leap” - never act without first considering the possible
consequences or dangers.
Ironically, I learnt that this proverb was first recorded in a dialogue by John Heywood in 1546 in reference to the rashness of leaping unpreparedly into marriage…. I really think there’s a theme I should be thinking about here if I’m ever brave enough to attempt dating again!
But seriously now… Every time you turn up at an incident scene, please… never become complacent, never assume the hazards are under control and always keep in mind your own personal safety and well-being, as well as that of others.
Interested in Knowing More?
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Additional ICAM Related Services
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Quality review of incident investigations using ICAM
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR- Jo De Landre (Executive General Manager)
After 15 years with the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI),which became part of the multi-modal Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), Jo started co-facilitating ICAM training with Safety Wise in 2001 as the Principal Human Factors Consultant.
In 2005, Jo was promoted to the position of Executive General Manager of Safety Wise and beyond providing human factors specialist services and ICAM training and Investigations, she is now involved in strategic activities such as project management and developing safety management programs.
Jo has been the Safety Wise Lead Investigator for many high profile accidents, including multiple fatality investigations. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Psychology and a Graduate Diploma of Psychology, and has published papers in aviation, mining and police journals and publications.
Joanne has also been Secretary of the Australian Aviation Psychology Association (AAvPA) for close to a decade.