Give a man a fish…teach a man to fish…

#english gareth lock safety Dec 08, 2020

I recently had a conversation with a safety professional who was looking for some advice. My colleague had recently asked another professional about how to create long-term change within their business when it came to safety. The other professional replied with the phrase “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” inferring that if you only provide him with the rules to follow, then he can only remain safe in that particular frame of reference, but that if you taught him how to be safe in general, then he would be safe for life.

My colleague wanted to know if you could teach everyone to be safe and my immediate response was that, in the main, yes. There will be always some who do not want to learn and/or lack the mental capacity and adaptation to learn but they are a tiny minority. I believe that in the main, you can teach the huge majority to fish, but there will still be some who can’t or won’t learn.

Safety has many different forms in the same way that fishing does. The types of fishing can range from using a small net in the rock pools/streams, to fly-fishing on a Scottish river, to offshore big game fishing, to huge fish-processing plants, to dynamite fishing on reefs… There is a common theme (fish), and safety has a common theme too - how we perceive, accept and manage uncertainties. This means we need to understand our own decision-making processes, the cognitive biases we struggle with (and also use to great effect), and finally, how high-performance is developed, maintained and how it is adapted to the socio-technical environment the individual is working in.

Another thing to bear in mind is that as the fishing task becomes more complicated or complex due to the number of variables and their interactions, then the training and continual professional development requirement for the fisherman also becomes more complicated and requires different skills sets.

The same applies to safety. Even at a personal level, risk perception, awareness and acceptance all develop over time based on our acquired knowledge, experience and feedback.

As many of you will know, I am involved in bringing non-technical skills, human factors and a Just Culture to the sports, military and scientific diving communities. This has been a long journey and it has even longer to go! Over the last decade, I have written thousands of words on the subject, recorded many hours of training and webinar videos, and given 10s of presentations across the globe. That work, over time, has moved divers from being consumers of information (fish) to being fishermen. It has created safer divers. It has created change, positive change that has happened one diver at a time. As they say, every downpour starts with a single drop…

This story was emailed to me this week from a diver in Canada. While change happens one person at a time, the rate of change can increase as more people recognise the value of learning what performance means and how to achieve it. As social creatures, we love to share things that change our thoughts, especially when it comes to positive aspects.

Just a few weeks ago, I was out on a shore-based dive in the St. Lawrence River (in Brockville, Ontario). We had planned to swim out to Gaskin shipwreck which my dive buddy and I had done before. We had lots of gas for a normal dive and had a gas plan utilizing thirds as our turning point. I was diving sidemount with two LP85 (high-pressure fills) and an AL80 stage bottle. My dive buddy was using an HP120 Twinset with an AL80 Stage bottle, again, normally lots of gas for this dive. 

The St. Lawrence River is known to have very strong currents, at times, in the main channel, it can be up to 8 knots. The wreck that we were going to was on the side of the channel and does have current (as well as a reverse current at the shore) but the current can fluctuate, based on upstream events such as rainfall and even contributory dams. Usually, the current is very manageable for the swim out to the wreck. On the day that we went out, all equipment checks went well, we had plenty of gas, clear skies and reasonable visibility of about 5-10 meters (typical for the St. Lawrence river), 14°C air temp and 9°C water temp. 

At nearly 2/3 of the way out to the wreck, I called the dive. Although we started with plenty of gas for a normal dive, we were working too hard and, in my opinion, the gas plan was no longer adequate for the dive plus the risk of leg cramps etc. If either of us had an equipment failure, we would have to contend with the current and the increased workload/gas usage. So, we turned around, did an extended safety stop, and ended the dive. After putting our gear away, we went for fish and chips, talked about what went right / what went wrong, trips for next year etc. 

The wreck has been sitting there for over 130 years, I don’t think it’s going anywhere in the next few months. Over the next few days, I saw a few articles/posts relating to gas planning and assumptions that divers make many times, including myself. This hit home very hard. Even more so, because a diver had died the day after our aborted dive, in that exact same location. We do not know what happened to the other diver, but maybe were currents a contributing factor. 

I just wanted to take a moment to share this with you. A few years ago, I might not have called the dive, I might have just keep pushing forward, I would like to think that your articles, book, and documentaries have had a positive impact on my decision making. Thanks so much!

It takes time to teach a man to fish. If you are a leader with responsibility for safety within your business, understand that if you want to create fishermen who can deal with the uncertainties and challenges that nature throws at them, you need to spend time and resource giving them the skills to do so. Even if that means that they don’t appear to be catching much, they are learning as long as they have positive feedback and making improvements.

Paradigm Human Performance provides consultancy and training support services covering human and organisational performance, psychological safety, just culture, human factors, investigation and HSE support. If you’d like to know more, drop us a line here https://www.paradigmhp.com/contact 

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