Very recently one of my sons and I put passenger seats back into our family van. We had taken the removable seats out in order to have the space to move some furniture from home to apartment. Now it was time to put the seats back in.

I was wearing my prescription sunglasses on the sunny afternoon when we tackled the task. As we hefted the bulky and heavy rear bench seat into the van, something sharply struck the right lens of my glasses. It was a spring, some part of the mechanism that locks the seats down. Having snapped suddenly, it fired at my face with high velocity. My face was no more than a few inches from the launch point of the spring. From the location of the point of impact, it was clear that the high-speed missile would have struck me squarely in the right eye, had I not had my glasses on.

Learning from factory visits

Given that the interior of the van was relatively dark, it had occurred to me to take my sunglasses off, so I could get a better view of the seat legs and their docking place. I certainly was not intentionally wearing them as PPE. But as luck would have it, I kept my sunglasses, with their impact-resistant polycarbonate lenses, on. From the time I started visiting factories and other industrial work settings many years ago, I learned that it was beneficial to have my own prescription “safety glasses” on at all times.

In some of the industrial settings in which I have consulted, there is some measure of resistance to the rules and requirements of PPE. If employees are not “in the habit,” they may argue that they don’t need a hard hat or safety glasses in this area or that, since there are no obvious hazards that would require them. Why wear a hard hat when I am driving my fork truck? Why wear safety glasses in parts of the plant where no one has ever had an eye injury? 

Lessons from seat belt studies

Some of my earliest work in the safety arena focused on automobile safety belt use. In the early 1980s, estimates of voluntary usage in my state of North Carolina were in the 12-15 percent range. Working with my friend and well-known safety expert Dr. Scott Geller, I did research on strategies to encourage people to buckle up.

We encountered a litany of reasons for not buckling up by non-users (“…it’s uncomfortable… it wrinkles my clothes… I only drive around town, not on the interstate… if my car catches on fire I want to be able to get out fast… if I see that I am about to have an accident I want to be able to jump out….”). This is a sampling of real excuses we heard.

Of the small percentage of safety-belt users we talked with, the most common reason for buckling up was “I (or a family member or someone I know) had an accident and was not buckled up and it was bad, and if I/they had been buckled up I/they would have been a lot better off… that’s when I started getting in the habit….”

Near-miss refresher course

My recent near-miss has refreshed me on a couple of crucial points. First, it has forcefully reminded me of the value of viewing every piece of work as potentially hazardous, and of using PPE, even where it doesn’t seem “necessary,” such as when reinstalling seats in a van.

Second, it has forcefully reminded me of the value of discussing near-miss situations. If my “near-miss confession” helps even one reader of this column avoid an accident by the intentional use of safety glasses or other PPE, this bit of self-disclosure will have been justified many times over.  

Third, it has forcefully reminded me that safety is every bit as much a concern at home as it is at work.

As much as the “typical” accident has human error/unsafe acts as a primary contributing cause, the “one in a million” sudden event does occur. If a potentially injurious situation couldn’t reasonably be pre-empted, the cautious use of PPE can dramatically mitigate its impact... in my case, literally.