Are You a Creature of Habit?

The lessons we learn come from many placLESSON es, some from experiences within our work environment and many outside of that environment. Consider this question, “Are you or a co-worker properly prepared to safely perform your assigned responsibilities?” “Have your past training and experiences formed a solid base that will help you complete your activity not only safely, but in an effective and efficient manner?” Or are you more a creature of habit, and do the same thing time and again because, “Well, it worked in the past”, or “That’s the way the old guy taught me.”

Are we all creatures of habit? Statistics have shown that 87 percent of people automatically go right when they enter a store. (Probably because they’re right-handed.) We shop in the same stores, eat the same food, follow the same routine and use the same sources for information.

You may be in the group – 13 percent of people – that act differently, but chances are you perform more of your activities during your day out of habit than through a conscious, thought driven process. We find comfort in our habits, possibly because we don’t have to think about what we are doing. It’s easy. It’s automatic. It’s kind of like driving a car, something that you have done for years, until you add another task and start talking on your cell phone. Then, that long learned driving skill can suddenly turn very dangerous.

Whether you are a refrigeration operator, a supervisor, a department manager or a CEO . . . think about what you do. Consider all your daily activities. Are you in the 87 percent group or the 13 percent group? Some of the activities you complete that have become more of a habit than an activity you stop and think about could have consequences. Here are some examples:

This example is from personal experience, but you may have had a similar experience. I had a lot on my mind as I drove to an important project meeting. Thoughts were churning as I headed through town trying to keep up my speed and avoid slowdowns. Not long after leaving the office I got a call (hands free) from one of our technicians. After talking to him it seemed like only seconds had past when I suddenly realized that I was almost at the meeting location. With the realization of where I was I also realized I had no idea of what had happened on the drive to get there. Did I obey the traffic laws? Stop at the stop signs and stop lights? It was unnerving. How many other people are out there driving around and not actually thinking about driving, but focused on something else like I was?

Another example actually happened many years ago at a large food distribution center. The head of maintenance asked one of the staff to clean up the main electrical distribution room. “Make sure you get all the dust and cobwebs, since those can cause us problems with the switch gear,” he said. Knowing what he was supposed to do, the cleaner went into the electrical room, and as he always did in the past, he used a combination of an air hose to blow things clean and a push broom to sweep up the mess. Upon opening one of the large panel doors in the electrical room, he spotted a big mess of dust and cobwebs, just out of reach of the air hose. So, to get closer, he puts a 6 foot ¼” pipe extension on the end of the air hose to reach the mess. This person was not thinking about where he was and what he was doing. He had developed a routine habit of improvising in difficult situations in order to get things clean, and this was the way he always did his job.

Unfortunately, in this case, the dusty mess he went to reach was in the back of the main electrical distribution panel, and he stuck his 6 foot metal pipe between the bus bars. It was a miracle that the staff member was not killed, and this scenario drives home a central point – routine can blind us to new operating situations, or new environmental factors that change the way we should work.

Another example of this happened several years ago. At another facility, one of the refrigeration operator’s maintenance tasks was to check for and drain oil from the drop leg of the system surge drums.

There were many surge drums at this facility, and for the operator, this had become a very routine task that he had completed many, many times. Probably because he had done this so many times and nothing happened, he no longer wore or even had with him his full faced ammonia cartridge mask, nor his gloves. Besides, the previous, now retired, refrigeration operator that had trained him never used a mask or gloves.

He gave no thought to the fact that there shouldn’t be that much oil to routinely drain at the surge drums. And this particular day, as he had just opened the oil drain valve, his cell phone rang. Since it was a little smelly right there at the oil drain valve, he stood up and turned his back on the valve to answer the call.

A short time into the phone conversation, he suddenly noticed that the ammonia smell was getting much stronger. That smell sensation that jarred his mind off the phone conversation was quickly followed by the thought “I left the oil drain valve open!” Turning around, he was faced with a growing white ammonia cloud that filled the mezzanine hallway.

What had become a habit – not having the appropriate personal protective equipment – made a bad mistake much worse. The only safe course of action was to leave the area, and fortunately he did have a safe escape route. But now he had to figure out how to isolate the leak from a remote location.

Obviously some habits are good. Getting in the habit of wearing hearing and eye protection and other appropriate PPE can protect us from sudden or longer term physical injuries. Getting in a habit of not using appropriate PPE can have serious consequences. Most of us, at least in some aspects of our lives, are in that 87 percent group I mentioned earlier where we do things without much, if any, thought. So how do we get into that 13 percent group where conscious thoughts drive our actions?

One good way is to change what we do. Changing what we do is a learning experience, and there are always more things we can learn. As in the examples above, we can improve, and we can do our work in a safer and possibly in a more efficient and effective manner. For those of us that are industrial ammonia refrigeration operators, designers, contractors, manufacturers, and educators, we all have opportunities available to us that can put us in that 13 percent group.

Some of these opportunities are right in front of us, and the best way to take advantage of them is to get involved in the work of the IIAR committees. Those committees are: Standards, Safety, Code, Piping, Compliance Guidelines, Education, International, Marketing, Research, Government Relations, CO2, and Conference. What a great place to help others learn from what you’ve learned, and also to learn things you didn’t even realize you didn’t know! You also meet other people who can be very helpful resources.

Other ways to expand your industryspecific knowledge are to attend IIAR webinars, study and learn from the many IIAR publications, from Industry books, bulletins, standards, and videos.

Access to past technical papers on numerous subjects is also a great source of institutional knowledge. They are a valuable and helpful resource of information, as are the many activities at the IIAR conference, and, of course, Condenser articles.

You can change from a creature of habit. Get motivated as you get involved. Continue learning and improving. Remember as you learn you are not trying to be smarter or better than everyone else, but smarter and better than you were.